“No man of better training, no man of more dauntless courage, of sounder common sense, an
d of higher and finer character, has ever come to the Presidency than William Howard Taft.”
So wrote Theodore Roosevelt in the 1909 souvenir program, distributed with each ticket to the inaugural ball of his successor. Roosevelt, of course, had chosen not to run in the 1908 election, instead designating Taft as his hand-picked successor, despite the latter’s minimal experience running for political office.
Now, 104 years later, Roosevelt will again welcome a surprising member to an exclusive club. And it will again be the rotund, mustachioed Taft.
That’s right, the Washington Nationals will introduce William Howard Taft – or “Bill” – as their newest racing president at Nats Fest Saturday afternoon.
“Teddy has handpicked the next president for the Presidents’ Race,” Nationals COO Andy Feffer said late Friday. “There was a great amount of banter and discussion back and forth, but Teddy won out with his recommendation.”
While the team considered all sorts of presidential options, this was actually an inspired choice. Taft avoids all the messy political subtext that virtually any post-war president would have created. He has an intimate connection with baseball, having
started the tradition of ceremonial first-pitch tossing with a 1910 delivery before a shutout win by Walter Johnson at Griffith Stadium. He’s also widely credited with having accidentally created the seventh-inning stretch.
Plus, Taft’s facial hair and girth likely will inspire love and merchandise sales.
“They’re all rather large, but he will be a little bit larger,” Feffer said.
And then there’s the Roosevelt thing. For better or worse, Teddy became the face of the Rushmore Four, the President who attracted screaming children, newspaper headlines and television reports. Roosevelt’s first-ever victory at the end of the 2012 regular season ended one longstanding gimmick; Taft’s arrival could herald another.
That’s because, as you learned in 10th grade but later forgot, the historical rift between the two men was among the more fascinating personal disputes in presidential history. Roosevelt had entrusted Taft with both the presidency and control of the then-ascendant Republican Party when he left office. But the Colonel later soured on Taft’s record and leadership, and decided to challenge him in the 1912 primaries.
The rhetoric that followed was every bit as good as Davey Johnson vs. Joe Maddon.
“It is a bad trait to bite the hand that feeds you,” Roosevelt said in April 1912, complaining that Taft “has not merely in thought, word, and deed been disloyal to our past friendship, but has been disloyal to every canon of ordinary decency and
“The memory of the names Mr. Roosevelt has called me still lingers in my ears,” Taft said the following month. “Since the time he began his personal attacks on me he has used all the epithets he could think of, and all the names in the calendar,
such as no President has ever been subjected to by a man who has had two terms in that office.”
Roosevelt trounced Taft in the primaries. But Taft still controlled the party machinery, and took down Roosevelt at the convention. Roosevelt then ran as a third-party candidate, dooming the Republicans to defeat and allowing Woodrow Wilson to take office nearly exactly a century ago.
“The rivalry was as bitter as it gets in politics,” said Allan Lichtman, distinguished professor of history at American University. “There’s nothing like the feeling of betrayal, and both men felt betrayed by the other. Roosevelt’s feeling was ‘I made you, you were nothing, and you turned around and stabbed me in the back.’ Taft believed, with good justification, that Roosevelt cost him his re-election and led to the election of a Democrat. This was bitter and personal.”
And now? Well, now giant-headed replicas of these two political titans – once allies, later rivals – will run down the foul lines at Nationals Park.
The team will refer to Taft as “Bill” and the “Big Chief,” due to his later role as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He’ll be on Twitter at @NatsBigChief27. He’ll first meet the world at 2:15 on Saturday at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center,
where he’ll later gladhand and take photos with fans. And sometime this spring, he’ll be one of five Presidential mascots sprinting out from that outfield gate.
“Not only do I think he’ll be well-received, but he’ll add to the competition,” Feffer said. “Who knows what’ll happen next? He might even give Teddy a run for his money.”