Robert A. Taft of Ohio

Robert A. Taft of Ohio

By Ray Hill

There are likely more pedigrees in politics than the American Kennel Club and if anyone ever possessed a pedigree, it would be Robert Alphonso Taft of Ohio.  For decades, Robert A. Taft was one of the most prominent members of the United States Senate.  The power of his intellect was acknowledged by friend and foe, but he was also socially awkward and many people viewed him as being rather cold.  The son of a president and Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, Robert A. Taft sought his party’s nomination for the presidency three times and lost each time.  An isolationist and conservative, Robert A. Taft had the ability to surprise his foes pleasantly and his friends equally unpleasantly.  Taft was no doctrinaire conservative and sponsored legislation for federal aid to education, health, and housing.

The Tafts became a dynasty in Ohio; Uncle Charlie owned one of the largest newspapers in the country; Bob’s father, William Howard Taft, was Secretary of War under Theodore Roosevelt and TR’s hand picked successor as president.  The elder Taft, unlike his son, never wished to be president and his ambitions were finally fulfilled when he was appointed Chief Justice under President Warren G. Harding.  Bob Taft’s son, Robert Taft, Jr., would serve as a congressman from Ohio and U. S. senator.  His grandson, Robert A. Taft, III, would serve as governor of Ohio for two terms.

Few men have been as ill suited for a political career as Robert A. Taft.  He was not at all dynamic, nor was he charismatic; quite the opposite.  Bob Taft achieved his goals due to very hard work, persistence, and the power of his intellect.  Balding, paunchy, and wearing glasses, Bob Taft looked more like a prosperous Midwestern banker than a senator.

Born September 8, 1889 in Cincinnati, Ohio, he was quite well educated and got to see much more of the world than most youngsters.  When his father was appointed governor-general of the Philippines, then a protectorate of the United States, the Taft family left to live in the governor’s palace.  Young Bob attended the Taft School, which was operated by his uncle, Horace, and then went on to Yale and Harvard Law School.  When it came time to take the Bar exam, Bob Taft had the highest score in the entire State of Ohio.

Bob Taft practiced law for several years before accepting a job with the federal government, but decided to return home to Ohio, where he opened his own law office.  The law firm of Taft, Stettinius and Hollister still exists today.

Despite being essentially a shy man, Bob Taft found love in Martha Bowers, a woman as vivacious as he was taciturn.  Martha’s father, Lloyd W. Bowers, was a very close friend of William Howard Taft.  President Taft appointed Lloyd Bowers to serve as Solicitor General of the United States.

Bob and Martha Taft purchased a forty-six acre farm at Indian Hill, approximately fifteen miles northeast of Cincinnati.  The farmhouse was a sprawling affair, built in the federalist style with seven bedrooms.

The Taft family quickly expanded to produce four sons: William Howard, III, Robert A. Taft, Jr., Lloyd Bowers Taft, and Horace Dwight Taft.  Bob Taft’s son and namesake would follow him into politics; Horace, like the uncle he was named for, became an educator.  William Howard Taft, III would eventually serve as the American Ambassador to Ireland.  Lloyd Taft would spend his life as a successful businessman.

Despite the isolationist reputation he would earn during his first three years in the United States Senate, Bob Taft tried to join the Army in 1917 when America entered the World War.  Taft was rejected for service because of his exceedingly poor eyesight.  It was then Robert A. Taft took a job with the Food and Drug Administration; it was the only way Taft felt he could contribute to the war effort.  While working for the Food and Drug Administration, Bob Taft met Herbert Hoover, who became something of a mentor to the younger man.  Bob Taft worked with Hoover while the future president was the director of the American Relief Administration, without which tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Europeans would have starved to death following the war.

Like his father, Taft urged American participation in the League of Nations, a notion generally rejected by most Republicans without the famous reservations proposed by Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge.

After returning to Ohio, Bob Taft turned to politics and was elected to the Ohio House of Representatives in 1920.  By 1926, Robert A. Taft was Speaker of the House.  He ran for and won a seat in the Ohio State Senate in 1930, but was defeated in 1932 when he sought reelection.  As a member of the legislature, Taft helped to modernize Ohio’s outdated tax laws and he emerged as an opponent of the Ku Klux Klan.

By 1938, Bob Taft was running for the U. S. Senate.  The incumbent was Robert J. Bulkley, a stalwart of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.  Bulkley had first been elected to fill a vacancy in 1930 and won a full six-year term in 1932.  Still, Bob Taft faced a serious opponent in the GOP primary, Arthur Day.  Taft won the primary, but was believed to be lagging behind Senator Bulkley.  Taft challenged Bulkley to a series of debates and the senator accepted.  Initially, Taft did not do as well as anticipated, but over time he performed exceptionally well, which bolstered his campaign when he needed it most.

Taft won the general election by 169,622 votes out of more than 2.3 million cast.  Although a freshman senator, Bob Taft helped to craft a coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats opposed to the New Deal.  The coalition prevented expansion of the New Deal for the remainder of FDR’s second term.  Senator Taft was highly critical of much of the New Deal and castigated what he deemed to be wasteful expenditures, but he supported the Social Security program.  Bob Taft believed in the rights of individuals and was highly suspicious of government interference in the personal lives of citizens, as well as business.

In 1940, Bob Taft, after less than two years in the United States Senate, was a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.  Both Taft and Thomas E. Dewey, a crusading district attorney in New York, were upset by the dark horse candidacy of Wendell Willkie.  Up for reelection to the Senate in 1944, Taft opted to concentrate on his own campaign and supported Ohio Governor John W. Bricker for the GOP nomination.  Bricker was at least as conservative as Taft, but more personally popular with both rank and file Republicans and Ohioans in general.  Bricker lost, but was chosen by Governor Thomas E. Dewey as his running mate.  Bob Taft barely won reelection, scraping by William Pickrel, who had the all-out support of organized labor.  Quite nearly three million votes were cast in the Senate race and Bob Taft won by fewer than 18,000 votes.

Unlike most politicians, Bob Taft was rarely ever deterred by popular public opinion, especially when it came to condemning something he viewed as either unconstitutional or un-American.  One such instance was his criticism of the Nuremberg Trials.  John F. Kennedy devoted a chapter to Senator Robert A. Taft in his book, Profiles In Courage precisely because of Taft’s view of the Nuremberg Trials.  Taft believed the trial of the Nazi war criminals was less an exercise in jurisprudence than politics.

“The trial of the vanquished by the victors cannot be impartial no matter how it is hedged about with the forms of justice,” Taft said matter-of-factly.

Taft thought the trials not only set a precedent fraught with danger for the future, but stretched the limits of our own Constitution.

Taft tartly questioned the hanging of the Nazis and observed that he did not believe the hangings would “ever discourage the making of aggressive war, for no one  makes aggressive war unless he expects to win.”

Senator Taft concluded in his plain spoken way, “About this judgment there is the spirit of vengeance, and vengeance is seldom justice.  The hanging of the eleven men convicted will be a blot on the American record, which we shall long regret.”

Taft’s convictions did not endear him to many people, as the vast majority felt the Nazis had gotten exactly what they deserved.

1948 seemed to be a promising year for Republicans; the GOP had swept both houses of Congress in the 1946 midterm elections for the first time since Franklin Roosevelt had been elected in 1932.  There were few Republicans in Congress as influential as Robert A. Taft.  Bob Taft became a candidate for the Republican nomination for president and most everybody presumed whomever the Republicans nominated would defeat Harry S. Truman.  Taft was the candidate of the conservative wing of the party while New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey, the 1944 GOP nominee, was the candidate of the establishment.  Dewey had run the best race against FDR of any Republican candidate and started out as the frontrunner.  A wild card in the race was Harold Stassen, who is little remembered today save as a perennial candidate.  At the time, Stassen was a former governor of Minnesota and a respectable candidate.  If anything, Stassen was more liberal than Tom Dewey.

Primary elections did not then play the role in the nominating process they do today, but Stassen dealt Dewey two shocking defeats in the Wisconsin and Nebraska primaries.  The momentum shifted to Stassen and Dewey scrambled to recover.  Stassen proceeded to overreach and challenged Bob Taft in his home state of Ohio.  Taft beat Stassen handily, but the former governor still loomed large in Oregon where he faced Tom Dewey.  The shrewd former prosecutor realized should Stassen defeat him in Oregon, he was almost surely not going to be the nominee of his party.  Dewey challenged Stassen to a debate, which was to be aired nationally over the radio.  Oddly, the two were not to debate the pressing issues of the day, but rather one question alone: should the Communist Party be outlawed in the United States.  Stassen’s overconfidence may have led him to make the mistake of debating Dewey, who was an accomplished courtroom performer.  Stassen took the position that the Communist Party should indeed be outlawed, while Dewey argued forcefully against making the party illegal.  Most objective observers felt Dewey had not only handled himself well, but had won the debate.  Tom Dewey won the Oregon primary.

Bob Taft’s support was largely confined to the South and Midwest.  Even some of those who had been his most loyal supporters retained doubts about his ability to win a national election.  Tom Dewey led on the first ballot with 434 votes and Bob Taft ran a distant second with 224 votes.  Stassen was third with 157 votes.  The rest of the votes were scattered amongst various favorite sons.  A second ballot saw both Dewey and Taft climb in the vote totals, but the New York governor proved to be impossible to beat.  A third ballot made the vote unanimous for Tom Dewey.

It was a bitter loss for Bob Taft and the only person in America who seemed to think Harry Truman could win the general election was the man from Missouri himself.  Tom Dewey proceeded to run one of the strangest presidential campaigns in American history.  The roles of challenger and incumbent were reversed; Truman traveled by train across the country in a whistle-stop tour, speaking in big cities, hamlets, villages and some places that were little more than holes in the road.  Truman campaigned harder than Dewey and drew enormous crowds.  After the election, reporters conceded they had been astonished by the number of people who came to hear and see Harry Truman, but discounted it as merely folks wanting to catch a glimpse of a President of the United States.  It had never occurred to them the people would actually vote for him.

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