9/6/16

Pairing Presidents IV: George H. Bush and William Howard Taft


George H. W. Bush and William Howard Taft:
Presidential Pairings IV

Welcome to the trivia segment. Does anyone remember who replaced Lou Gehrig when his 2,130 games streak ended? Or Cal Ripkin, Jr. after 2,632 consecutive starts? It's hard to follow a star act. Taft took office after the energetic reformism of Teddy Roosevelt, and Bush after eight years of Ronald Reagan. One can—and I will–take some of the luster off of TR and Reagan, but the public adored both. Neither William Howard Taft nor George Herbert Walker Bush had the "star power" to impress in their own right.

How they are similar:

Neither man was temperamentally suited to be president. Taft was, by training and experience, a judge. Before being elected president in 1908, Taft had been an Ohio judge, a federal judge, Solicitor General of the United States, and Secretary of War. He was almost appointed to the Supreme Court in 1889, and became Chief Justice of that body in 1921, six years after leaving the White House.

Bush served as Reagan's vice president for eight years, but his first love was foreign affairs. Overall, Bush was more of an administrator and diplomat than a politician. Among his pre-presidential jobs, he was ambassador to the United Nations, head of the Council on Foreign Affairs, envoy to China, and director of the CIA. (He also served on the boards of various banks.)

Neither Taft nor Bush is particularly known for their domestic policies, though each had more on their résumés than usually assumed. Roosevelt had a reputation as a "trust buster," but it was Taft who implemented the breakup of the Standard Oil monopoly. Roosevelt initiated the assault on John Rockefeller's oil trust, but Taft actually took down more monopolies than TR. Taft also appointed six Supreme Court justices, most of them moderate or conservative, but each with solid judicial backgrounds.

It surprises many, but George H. Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act. He also reauthorized—over the howl of the development-at-any-cost business community–the Clean Air Act. Bush actively promoted volunteerism, though his "thousand points of light" campaign invited lampoon.

Neither man distinguished himself in immigration policy. Taft wanted a literacy test for immigrants; Bush's 1990 reform act is said to have caused more illegal immigration, rather than rationalizing policy.

Each man is remembered for trivial things: Taft for being our most corpulent president and for being the first chief executive to open the baseball season by throwing out the first pitch. Bush is often recalled for a penchant for mangling words and, in the 1992 election, for being patrician and not knowing grocery stores had price scanners.

Each is remembered most for foreign policy initiatives. Taft deserves credit for modernizing the State Department; among other things, he staffed experts to the desks of defined regions: the Far East, Western Europe, and Latin America. His "Dollar Diplomacy" in Latin America, which links aid to support for U.S. positions, continues to the present–for better or worse. Taft defended the Panama Canal, a Roosevelt initiative.

Bush is recalled for being the POTUS when the Cold War ended, though he seldom gets much credit for making that happen. He is better remembered for sending troops to Panama to overthrow Manuel Noriega, who was accused of drug smuggling. He also authorized the first Gulf War, a decision that was wildly popular at the time, but which now invites reassessment.

Both men disappointed their own parties. Taft did not share Roosevelt's commitment to conservation and battled forestry chief Gifford Pinchot. This earned Roosevelt's wrath to the point where he ran a third party campaign against Taft in 1916. (For trivia buffs, it's the only time a third party finished second in a presidential race, though Democrat Woodrow Wilson won the election.)

Bush promised "no new taxes" when he ran for the presidency in 1988, but was forced to raise them when he discovered the depth of Reagan's deficit spending. The fact that he had called the Reagan tax cut ideas "voodoo economics" when he opposed Reagan in the 1980 primaries made him seem traitorous to GOP hardliners. Others criticized him for his appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Thomas was accused of sexual harassment of Anita Hill. Thomas was confirmed, but the GOP has fared poorly with women since.

Presidents that history judges as superior followed both men: Wilson and Clinton.

How they were different:

Taft had superior reform credentials. Neither man was a social gadfly, but Taft was more gregarious than Bush, who was noted for being stiff. There are other surface differences, but Taft and Bush I are generally seen as placeholder presidents.

Rankings:

Taft is rated 23 and Bush as 22 (of 42). Bush will surely drop as the ratings pool increases. One newer poll has Taft 36 and Bush 31. Taft deserves better, but 31 is in the ballpark for Bush.  

No comments: