Robert Alphonso Taft (September 8, 1889 - July 31, 1953), of the Taft political family of Cincinnati, was a Republican United States Senator and a prominent conservative spokesman. As the leading opponent of the New Deal in the Senate from 1939 to 1953, he led the successful effort by the conservative coalition to curb the legal privileges of labor unions, and was a major proponent of the foreign policy of non-interventionism. However, he failed in his quest to win the presidential nomination of the Republican Party in 1940, 1948 and 1952. From 1940 to 1952 he battled New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey, the leader of the GOP's moderate "Eastern Establishment" for control of the Republican Party. In 1957, a Senate committee chaired by John F. Kennedy named Taft as one of the five greatest senators in American history.
Taft was a product of one of America's most prominent political families. He was the grandson of Attorney General and Secretary of War Alphonso Taft, and the son of President and Chief Justice William Howard Taft and Helen Herron Taft. His younger brother, Charles Taft, served as the Mayor of Cincinnati and was the unsuccessful Republican candidate for Governor of Ohio in 1952. As a boy he spent four years in the Philippines, where his father was governor. He was first in his class at The Taft School (run by his uncle), at Yale College (1910) and at Harvard Law School (1913), where he edited the Harvard Law Review. After finishing first in his class at Yale and Harvard Law School, he practiced for four years with the firm of Maxwell and Ramsey (now Graydon Head & Ritchey LLP) in Cincinnati, Ohio, his family's ancestral city. After a two-year stint in Washington working for the United States Food and Drug Administration, he returned to Cincinnati and opened his own law office. In 1924, he and his brother Charles helped form the law partnership Taft, Stettinius, and Hollister, with whom he continued to be associated until his death and which continues to carry his name today. On October 17, 1914, he married Martha Wheaton Bowers, the heiress daughter of Lloyd Wheaton Bowers, who had served as the United States Solicitor General under his father. Taft himself appeared taciturn and coldly intellectual, characteristics that were offset by his gregarious wife, who served the same role his mother had for his father, as a confidante and powerful asset to her husband's political career. In 1949 Martha suffered a severe stroke which left her an invalid; after her stroke Taft faithfully assisted his wife, even helping to feed and take care of her at public functions, a fact which, his admirers noted, belied his public image as a cold and uncaring person. They had four sons including Robert Taft Jr. (1917-1993), who was also elected to the U.S. Senate; Horace Dwight Taft, who became a professor of physics and dean at Yale; and William Howard Taft III (1915-1991), who became ambassador to Ireland. Two of Taft's grandsons are Robert Alphonso Taft II (1942-), Governor of Ohio from 1999 to 2007, and William Howard Taft IV (1945-), a statesman and Deputy Secretary of Defense from 1984 to 1989.
Early public careerEdit
When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, Taft attempted to join the US Army, but he was rejected by the army due to his poor eyesight. Instead, he joined the legal staff of the Food and Drug Administration where he met Herbert Hoover, who became his idol. In 1918-1919 he was in Paris as legal adviser for the American Relief Administration, Hoover's agency which distributed food to war-torn Europe. He learned to distrust governmental bureaucracy as inefficient and detrimental to the rights of the individual principles he promoted throughout his career. He strongly urged membership in the League of Nations, but generally distrusted European politicians. He strongly endorsed the idea of a powerful World Court that would enforce international law, but no such idealized court ever existed during his lifetime. He returned to Cincinnati in late 1919, promoted Hoover for president in 1920, and opened a law firm with his brother Charles Taft. In 1920 he was elected to the Ohio House of Representatives, where he served as Speaker of the House in 1926. In 1930 he was elected to the state senate, but was defeated for reelection in 1932; it would be the only defeat in a general election he would suffer in his political career. His period of service in the Ohio state legislature was most notable for his efforts to modernize and simplify the state's antiquated tax laws. He was an outspoken opponent of the Ku Klux Klan; he did not support prohibition. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s Taft was a powerful figure in local and state political and legal circles, and was known as a loyal Republican who never threatened to bolt the party. He confessed in 1922 that "while I have no difficulty talking, I don't know how to do any of the eloquence business which makes for enthusiasm or applause." A lackluster speaker who did not mix well or glad-hand supporters, nevertheless Taft was a tireless worker with a broad range of policy and political interests. His total grasp of the complex details of every issue impressed reporters and politicians. (Democrats joked that "Taft has the best mind in Washington, until he makes it up.") Taft's loyalty to the conservative politicians who controlled Ohio's Republican Party had a price, as it often caused conflict with his younger brother Charles, who as a local politician in Cincinnati had gained a reputation as a party maverick and liberal. However, despite their occasional policy disagreements, Charles loyally supported all three of his brother's presidential bids. In 1917 Taft and his wife Martha bought a 46-acre (190,000 m2) farm in Indian Hill, Ohio, a well-to-do suburb of Cincinnati. Called "Sky Farm", it would serve as Taft's primary residence for the rest of his life. The Tafts gradually made extensive renovations that turned the small farmhouse into a sixteen-room mansion. On the farm Taft enjoyed growing strawberries, asparagus, and potatoes for profit. In the summer Taft often vacationed with his wife and children at the Taft family's ancestral summer home at Murray Bay, located in the Canadian province of Quebec.
Taft was elected to the first of his three terms as U.S. Senator in 1938. Cooperating with conservative southern Democrats, he led the Conservative Coalition that opposed the "New Deal." The Republican gains in the 1938 congressional elections, combined with the creation of the Conservative Coalition, had stopped the expansion of the New Deal. However, Taft saw his mission as not only stopping the growth of the New Deal, but also as eliminating many of the government programs that had already come from it. During his first term in the Senate, Taft criticized what he believed was the inefficiency and waste of many New Deal programs, and of the need to let private enterprise and businesses restore the nation's economy instead of relying upon government programs to end the Great Depression. He condemned the New Deal as socialist and attacked deficit spending, high farm subsidies, governmental bureaucracy, the National Labor Relations Board, and nationalized health insurance. However, he did not always follow conservative ideology; for instance, after investigating the lack of adequate housing in the nation he supported public housing programs. He also supported the Social Security program. Taft set forward a conservative program that promoted economic growth, individual economic opportunity, adequate social welfare, strong national defense (primarily the Navy and Air Force), and non-involvement in European wars. He also strongly opposed the military draft on the principle that it limited a young man's freedom of choice. Broadly speaking, in terms of political philosophy Taft was a libertarian; he opposed nearly all forms of governmental interference in both the national economy and in the private lives of citizens. Taft's greatest prominence during his first term came not from his fight against the New Deal and President Franklin Roosevelt, but rather from his vigorous and outspoken opposition to U.S. involvement in the Second World War. A staunch non-interventionist, Taft believed that America should avoid any involvement in European or Asian wars and concentrate instead on solving its domestic problems. He believed that a strong U.S. military, combined with the natural geographic protection of the broad Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, would be adequate to protect America even if the Nazis overran all of Europe. Between the outbreak of war in September 1939 and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 Taft opposed nearly all attempts to aid Allied forces fighting the Nazis in Europe. His outspoken opposition to aiding the Allied forces earned him strong criticism from many Republican liberals, such as Wendell Willkie and Thomas E. Dewey, who felt that America could best protect itself by fully supporting the British and their allies. Although Taft fully supported the American war effort after Pearl Harbor, he continued to harbor a deep suspicion of American involvement in postwar military alliances with other nations, including NATO. In 1944 Taft was nearly defeated in his bid for a second term in the Senate; his Democratic opponent received major support from Ohio's labor unions and internationalists and nearly won the upset victory. However, in 1950 Taft ran a more effective campaign in which he wooed factory workers; he won a third term by a wide margin. He became chairman of the Senate Republican Conference in 1944. By the start of his third term in the Senate, Taft had been given the nickname "Mr. Republican"; he was the chief ideologue and spokesperson for the conservatism of the Republican Party of that era, and he was the acknowledged national leader of the GOP's conservative faction. (Patterson, p. 335)
Taft first sought the Republican (GOP) presidential nomination in 1940, but lost to Wendell Willkie. Taft was regarded as a strong contender, but his support of non-interventionist foreign policies and his opposition to the New Deal in domestic policy led many liberal Republicans to reject his candidacy. At the 1940 GOP Convention Willkie—a onetime Democrat and corporate executive who had never run for political office—came from behind to beat Taft and several other candidates for the nomination. In the 1944 presidential campaign Taft was not a candidate, instead he supported Governor John Bricker of Ohio, a fellow conservative, for the GOP nomination. However, Bricker was defeated by New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey; Bricker then became Dewey's running mate. In 1948 Taft made a second try for the GOP nomination, but was defeated by his arch-rival, Governor Dewey, who led the GOP's moderate/liberal wing. In 1952 Taft made his third and final try for the GOP nomination; it also proved to be his strongest effort. He had the solid backing of the party's conservative wing, and with Dewey no longer an active candidate many political pundits regarded him as the frontrunner. However, the race changed when Dewey and other GOP moderates were able to convince Dwight D. Eisenhower, the most popular general of World War II, to run for the nomination. According to biographer Stephen Ambrose, Eisenhower agreed to run in part because of his fear that Taft's non-interventionist views in foreign policy might unintentionally benefit the Soviet Union in the Cold War. The fight between Taft and Eisenhower for the GOP nomination was one of the closest and most bitter in American political history. When the Republican Convention opened in July 1952, Taft and Eisenhower were neck-and-neck in delegate votes, and the nomination was still up for grabs as neither had a majority. On the convention's first day Eisenhower's managers complained that Taft's forces had unfairly denied Eisenhower supporters delegate slots in several Southern states, including Texas and Georgia. They proposed to remove pro-Taft delegates in these states and replace them with pro-Eisenhower delegates; they called their proposal "Fair Play". Although Taft angrily denied having stolen any delegate votes, the convention voted to support Fair Play 658 to 548. In addition, several uncommitted state delegations, such as Michigan and Pennsylvania, agreed to support Eisenhower. There were rumors after the convention that the chairmen of these uncommitted states, such as Arthur Summerfield of Michigan, were secretly pressured by Dewey and the GOP's Eastern Establishment to support Eisenhower; however, these rumors were never proven (Summerfield did become Ike's Postmaster General following the election). The addition of these formerly uncommitted state delegations, combined with Taft's loss of many Southern delegates due to the Fair Play proposal, decided the nomination in Eisenhower's favor. Despite his bitterness at his narrow defeat and his belief that he had been unfairly ambushed by the Eisenhower forces (including Governor Dewey), after the convention Taft issued a brief statement conveying his congratulations and support to Eisenhower. Thereafter, however, he brooded in silence at his summer home in Quebec. As the weeks passed, Eisenhower's aides worried that Taft and his supporters would sit on their hands during the campaign, and that as a result Eisenhower might lose the election. In September 1952 Taft finally agreed to meet with Eisenhower, at Morningside Heights in New York City. There, in order to gain Taft's support in the campaign, Eisenhower promised he would take no reprisals against Taft partisans, would cut federal spending, and would fight "creeping socialism in every domestic field." In fact, Eisenhower and Taft agreed on most domestic issues; their disagreements were primarily in foreign policy. Eisenhower firmly believed in NATO and was committed to the U.S. supporting anti-Communism in the Cold War. Following Eisenhower's election and the GOP takeover of Congress, Taft served as Senate Majority Leader in 1953, and he strongly supported Eisenhower's domestic proposals. He worked hard to assist the inexperienced new officials of the administration. He even tried–with little success–to curb the excesses of red-baiting U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy. By April the President and Taft were friends and golfing companions, and Taft was praising his former adversary. Defeat in 1952, it seemed, had softened Taft. No longer burdened by presidential ambitions, he had become less partisan, less abrasive, and more conciliatory; during this time he was widely regarded as the most powerful man in Congress.
Death and legacyEdit
In early 1953 Taft began to feel pain in his hips, and after a painful golf outing with President Eisenhower in April 1953 he entered a New York hospital for tests. The tests revealed that he had cancer, and his doctors recommended exploratory surgery to see the extent of the cancer. Taft continued to work hard in the Senate, but the exploratory operation revealed that the cancer was widespread and terminal. In late May 1953, Taft transferred his duties as Senate Majority Leader to Senator William Knowland of California, but he did not resign his Senate seat and told reporters that he expected to recover and return to work. However, his condition rapidly worsened, and after suffering a brain hemorrhage Taft died at New York Hospital on July 31, depriving the new administration of its ablest supporter on Capitol Hill. President Eisenhower and many prominent politicians from both parties attended his funeral. He is buried at Indian Hill Episcopal Church Cemetery in Cincinnati. In 1957, a committee led by Senator John F. Kennedy selected Taft as one of five of their greatest Senate predecessors whose oval portraits would adorn the President's Room off the Senate floor. Kennedy would devote a chapter to him in his book Profiles in Courage, and Taft continues to be regarded by historians as one of the most powerful U.S. Senators of the twentieth century. (Patterson, p. 617)