William Howard Taft: The Travails of a Progressive Conservative. By Jonathan Lurie. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 214 pp.
William Howard Taft has not fared well with historians. Surveys of scholars uniformly have graded him "average" in comparative ratings with other presidents. Jonathan Lurie, a legal historian, thinks this poor standing is undeserved. He has reevaluated this mediocre reputation, arguing that Taft was a "progressive president" who "modernized the presidency." Lurie approaches this task primarily through biography, relying heavily on Taft's correspondence to track his career and thinking about people and politics. In the process, Lurie sought to explain Taft's self-characterization as a "progressive conservative."
Taft followed in his father's footsteps by attending Yale and being admitted to the bar in Cincinnati, Ohio. The younger Taft advanced rapidly through the legal system, beginning as an assistant prosecutor in Cincinnati, continuing as a trial judge for the Ohio courts, and serving as solicitor general of the United States prior to presiding as a U.S. circuit court judge. In 1900, President William McKinley asked him to head the Philippine Commission, which guided the colonies' preparation for self-governance. A specialist in military legal history, Lurie devoted much of a chapter to Taft's contentious relationships with American field commanders then battling Filipino insurgents. President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Taft as secretary of war in 1904, which put these two friends in closer contact, a relationship that Lurie chronicles from the Taft and Roosevelt papers. Their warmth unraveled with the approach of the 1912 election, when Roosevelt sought to reclaim the Republican presidential nomination. Lurie's research in the Taft correspondence (some of which was from excerpted passages contained in the papers of Henry Pringle, Taft's early biographer) offers insights into the president's self-deprecating personality. Taft had no stomach for "politics," realized his ineptitude for it, and disavowed an ambition to be president, despite his decision to deny Roosevelt's return to the White House. A brief chapter and epilogue round out Lurie's review of Taft's postpresidential career, with the author noting that he plans a separate study of Taft's years as chief justice (1921-30).
Despite soldiering on in a position that he never actively sought, Taft performed fairly well in the job as president, in...