William Howard Taft, pictured with his wife, Nellie Taft, in an undated photo, wanted to be chief justice, not president. (AP)

H.W. Brands teaches at the University of Texas at Austin; his next book is “Heirs of the Founders: The Epic Rivalry of Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster, the Second Generation of American Giants.”

‘Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some are born in Ohio,” ran the Gilded Age riff on Shakespeare. How else to account for the string of Ohioans in the White House — seven of the 11 presidents from 1869 to 1923? It made electoral sense: All were Republicans, it was a Republican era in presidential politics, and Ohio delivered a hefty chunk of electoral votes. But it also made for some undistinguished presidents, including Rutherford Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, James Garfield and Warren Harding.

William Howard Taft got the job not because he was from Ohio, although his Buckeye roots didn’t hurt. He got it because Theodore Roosevelt deluded himself into thinking that Taft would continue the Roosevelt legacy into the third term the Rough Rider forswore after 7 1/2 years in office. Or perhaps it was Taft who deluded Roosevelt. Either way, Taft received Roosevelt’s anointment and with it the Republican nomination in 1908, and he coasted to victory in the general election.

It was a bad career move. Roosevelt would have been a tough act for anyone to follow; his personalization of the presidency and his eagerness to expand executive power raised the bar of presidential success several notches. Taft was the least likely person to clear the new standard. The glare of public scrutiny repelled him; the demands of democratic politics dismayed him; the violence done to the Constitution by Roosevelt’s aggrandizement offended him.

He should have been a judge. He had been a judge, and he liked the work. But it didn’t satisfy his wife, who dreamed of more for her Will. And it didn’t satisfy Roosevelt, who saw in Taft something of what he had lost in the premature death of his younger brother. Taft was a gifted administrator; his talents had prompted William McKinley to move him from federal circuit court to the Philippines to oversee the establishment of an American government for that new colony. Roosevelt brought Taft to Washington to be secretary of war, and perhaps his successor. In his new biography of Taft, Jeffrey Rosen relates a White House moment when Roosevelt, after a private dinner with the Tafts, pretended to be clairvoyant. “There is something hanging over his head,” Roosevelt declared, looking above Taft. “I cannot make out what it is. . . . At one time it looks like the Presidency, then again it looks like the chief justiceship.”

“Make it the presidency,” urged Nellie Taft.


(Time)

“Make it the chief justiceship,” pleaded her husband.

Roosevelt made it the presidency. His progressivism irked GOP regulars, and he feared they would reverse the reforms he had effected in rebalancing democracy and capitalism in American life. Taft let Roosevelt think he would carry the progressive torch forward.

And so he did, but in his own way. Rosen aptly observes that by some measures — trusts prosecuted, acreage protected, tariffs reduced — Taft was more progressive than Roosevelt. Yet his style could hardly have been less Rooseveltian. Rosen, a law professor and a biographer of Louis Brandeis, makes a compelling argument for Taft’s importance as a conservator of the Constitution on the subject of presidential powers. Roosevelt boasted of seizing whatever authority wasn’t explicitly denied to him by the Constitution; Taft insisted on the Constitution’s positive grant of authority before acting.

Taft’s approach would have suited America a generation earlier, but Roosevelt had accustomed the country to activism, and when Roosevelt, finally bored with slaughtering the big game of Africa on an epic post-presidential safari, returned to the United States, he was easily talked into thinking Taft had betrayed him. In a fit of egotism he ruined Taft’s presidency, split the Republican Party and handed the White House to the Democrats.

Yet Taft’s career wasn’t over. Indeed, the career he should have had all along was just getting back on track. Rosen complements his coverage of Taft’s work with attention to private matters. For all her pushiness, Nellie was his true love, and the attention he devoted to her recovery after a stroke is deeply moving. Rosen relates Taft’s struggles with obesity, observing that his weight ballooned when he was under stress, particularly in the White House. Sleep apnea, a side effect, left him chronically drowsy. Taft took the inevitable fat-man jokes in stride and even made a few himself. When Yale offered him a chair in law after he left the presidency, he responded that they had better make it a sofa.

He achieved his lifelong goal when Harding appointed him chief justice. Taft remained on the Supreme Court for nearly a decade, resigning just a month before his death in 1930. His administrative talents reemerged as he streamlined the federal court system, and a political savvy few had suspected in him helped persuade Congress to fund a new building for the court, which had shared the Capitol with the legislative branch. Taft didn’t live to see the completion of the marble temple to justice and the constitutional separation of powers, but it served as a fitting monument to the most distinguished post-presidential career in American history.

William Howard Taft
The American Presidents Series: The 27th President, 1909-1913

By Jeffrey Rosen

Times. 183 pp. $26