Review: Taft, Roosevelt, and the Limits of Friendship

Burton, David H. Taft, Roosevelt, and the Limits of Friendship. (Rosemont Publishing & Printing Corp., 2005. Hardcover. ISBN: 0838640427. 156 pp.

Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft present a study in opposites. Roosevelt was larger than life in his energy and outsize ambition. He desired to push the nation into the 20th Century with a “Square Deal” for everyone, balancing the playing field between corporations, labor and average Americans. Taft, on the other hand, was equally patriotic but much more legalistic in his thinking. Barton does an especially good job of drawing these contrasts. Yet somehow these two men grew to be political friends. Roosevelt used the highly effective administration in Taft to carry out his Philippine policy, the construction of the Panama Canal, and to act at times as Secretary of State on overseas trips to feel out rising powers like Japan.

Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft

But when Taft, Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor, chose to go his own way and take a more cautious approach during his presidency, their friendship was irrevocably damaged. The final breaking point came when Taft chose to prosecute a trust that had been approved by Roosevelt in 1907 out of pragmatism. Taft had endorsed allowing the trust to exist in 1907, and his change of heart seemed to Roosevelt a personal betrayal. Roosevelt became a stiff critic of Taft for his supposed betrayal of Progressive Republican ideas and ran against him in 1912, splitting the vote and allowing Wilson to win.
Burton handles their friendship less successfully than he does their break. He rarely relies on personal letters to paint a portrait of friends and his narrative is really a dual-biography (something he denies in the beginning of his book). He tells us what Roosevelt thought or did, and then what Taft thought or did, but seldom do they really intersect in this book. As a study in contrasts the book is extraordinarily effective, but there is little context as to why their break was important. To Burton, Roosevelt merely became emotional and Taft continued to be legalistic which made it impossible for them to be friends.
The impact on the political system is virtually ignored. Essentially the book is a mini-biography of Taft, and Burton tries to pull Taft out of Roosevelt’s shadow. In this he is effective. His narrative is careful to make Taft appear a decisive leader in his own right, refuting most of the stereotypes we have now about Taft. But it is not entirely a balanced account. Roosevelt comes off somewhat as “the bad guy” in his denunciations of Taft and as the provocateur. No doubt Roosevelt’s high energy approach to politics makes this an easy path to take. But while a re-evaluation of Taft is important (he was an effective President at times) the overall purpose of this book seems muddled. There is very little friendship here so the final break between Taft and Roosevelt feels more perfunctory than tragic.

A short and informative read, narrow in scope, but really a study in contrasting political approaches more than a study in friendship.It doesn’t break any new ground or try to put their relationship into a national context.

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