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A Tough Act to Follow

September 27, 2017

Once, when President Theodore Roosevelt was out of the country and inaccessible, Secretary of War William Howard Taft took steps to reverse a decision Roosevelt had made just before leaving.  Taft did not intend to oppose Roosevelt.  He was responding to political sentiment and was acting in the President’s best interest by anticipating what Roosevelt might have decided if he had remained at hand.  But Roosevelt did not change his mind according to political sentiment.  Taft expressed solidarity with Roosevelt when he wrote: “It is quite embarrassing to me to have it thought that I differ with him on the subject.”

Taft was Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor, but there was only one Theodore Roosevelt.  Few Presidents had served as long.  Cleveland had served two terms, but they were nonconsecutive.  Grant served eight consecutive years, but his second term had ended thirty-two years before Taft’s inauguration.  Roosevelt served from September 14, 1901 through March 4, 1909.  His energy and length of service had created a strong impression of how a 20th century President might present himself to the public.  People were bound to be disappointed by mere competence unaccompanied by fanfare.

Taft did not help himself by being indifferent to the media of his day.  He believed Roosevelt had spent too much time courting the press.  Was it really necessary to do so much self-promotion?  Why should the President do the media’s job?  Good policy should speak for itself.

Such was the thinking of a man with a judicial rather than a political temperament.  Taft failed to realize that he needed to explain how his policies were enhancing what Roosevelt had begun.  Meanwhile, offering a negative assessment of his policies, Taft’s political enemies were only too happy to speak with the press.



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