Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Roger Morris' Richard Milhous Nixon 17

For my blog post today about Roger Morris' Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician,  I will use as my starting-point something that Morris says about Robert Taft, the conservative Republican Senator who would run for the Republican nomination for President in 1952, only to lose to Dwight Eisenhower.

On page 659, Morris says the following about Robert Taft:

"The views in question were never so simple as either his rivals or right-wing votaries pretended.  Beneath the antiunion strictures of Taft-Hartley and the loathing of big government was an abiding social conscience that struggled to find creative new programs for decent housing or health care.  The other side of his cautionary isolationism was a shrewd suspicion of self-defeating entanglement with foreign tyranny and a rare sense of the base Soviet weakness, of U.S. bullying and provocation in the infant Cold War.  And through it all ran a stolid adherence to principle, leading him to stand on the Senate floor----misunderstood, vilified, nearly alone----condemning the grimly popular Nuremberg Trials as a tragedy ex post facto law and prosecution.  After Taft's failed bids for the nomination in 1940 and 1948, one hardened reporter concluded there was not 'a fiber of demagoguery in him...a rare combination of ability, courage, courtesy, and integrity seldom encountered in politics or anywhere else for that matter.'"

Morris tells other Taft anecdotes, such as how Taft tenderly took care of his wife after she had a stroke, "coming home early from political meetings in 1951-52 to read to" her and "tenderly pushing her along in a wheelchair to state dinners and then cutting up her food and feeding her" (page 659).  Nixon in his memoirs was impressed by this, but, as Morris notes, so was "much of official Washington" (page 659).  Morris also mentions other things that Nixon said about Taft.  Nixon liked to tell the story about how a little girl one time asked Taft for an autograph, and Taft gave her a dry monologue before a TV camera about why he couldn't give her an autograph: because it takes less time to shake hands with people.  This demonstrated Taft's stiff demeanor.  Nixon also did not think that Taft was the right candidate for 1952 because Nixon did not feel that Taft had a sufficient understanding of the Communist threat.  When Nixon in 1950 spoke about "the threat of communism at home and abroad" (Nixon's words), Taft spoke after Nixon and said that socialism was a greater threat.  Nixon recounted, "What concerned me was his failure to recognize that many socialists were dedicated anti-communists" (page 660).  Morris says that Nixon's scruple here would have surprised those whom he beat in California races, in which Nixon arguably did not make a fine distinction between Socialism and Communism in his attacks on Jerry Voorhis and Helen Gahagan Douglas.

I was a little surprised by Morris' praise for Robert Taft, since Mooris does not appear to praise conservative Republicans all too often in his book.  He often portrays them as wealthy special interests, or as belligerent radicals.  He even depicts some of Taft's supporters in this manner, highlighting their wealth, their racism, or their anti-Semitism.  I suppose that I shouldn't be too surprised by Morris' kind words about Taft, though, for praising Taft did eventually become an "in" thing, if you will.  I one time read an article by Rick Perlstein, which contained the following interesting line (as Perlstein quoted himself):

"It is a quirk of American culture that each generation of nonconservatives sees the right-wingers of its own generation as the scary ones, then chooses to remember the right-wingers of the last generation as sort of cuddly. In 1964, observers horrified by Barry Goldwater pined for the sensible Robert Taft, the conservative leader of the 1950s. When Reagan was president, liberals spoke fondly of sweet old Goldwater."

But, even prior to 1964, Taft was praised by people who were non-conservatives.  There is a chapter about Taft in John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage, as Kennedy depicts Taft as courageous on account of Taft's criticism of the Nuremberg trials.

I've long had a slight affection for Robert Taft.  I remember reading about him in an encyclopedia when I was a child, and he was also a prominent character in an excellent book that I read as a sixth grader, Booth Mooney's The Politicians, 1945-1960.  When I was little and my family went to Washington D.C., we were on a tour bus and were sitting up front.  The tour guide was talking about Robert Taft, and I was whispering to her facts about him.  She gave me the microphone and let me tell everyone on the bus what Robert Taft's nickname was: "Mr. Republican."

Years later, I read James Patterson's biography about Taft, but I had a hard time getting into it.  Maybe it was the vast amount of detail in the book that turned me off, or learning that Taft did not fit my own definition of conservatism, or a feeling that I had that Taft was rather boring.  But, years after reading that book, my interest in Taft has been rekindled.  Some of this is on account of my admiration for how he treated his wife after her stroke.  Some of it is due to my curiosity about the creative solutions that he tried to devise for housing or health care, as well as his rationale behind his foreign policy.  Maybe I'll someday reread Patterson's book, or other books about post-World War II conservative isolationists.  Blogging through Patterson's book would probably help me in reading it.  It helped me when I read W.A. Swanberg's biography of socialist Norman Thomas: while I was not interested in many of the details that Swanberg mentioned, blogging through the book did help me to pay attention to what I was reading and to find thought-provoking things.  I believe that there are jewels in all kinds of books.

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