William Howard Taft He Thought Saving the Planet May Outrun the Practical Facts

1908-1912

The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.

—Donald Trump, November 6, 2012

I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.

—Donald Trump, June 1, 2017


In 1909, on his way out of office, Teddy Roosevelt decided that all the countries of the world should meet in the Hague to decide how to conserve the planet’s resources. When William Howard Taft took over, he immediately scuttled plans for the World Conservation Congress, and the very idea of global resource planning sank along with it. Until 106 years later and the Paris climate agreement. When Trump bailed on Paris, though, the effect wasn’t quite as chilling; the other signatories either laughed or yelled at him. This time, basic stewardship will go on despite the president of the United States’ recalcitrance. In any case, it is obvious that fat presidents who are avid golfers think investing in the environment should stop at paying the greens keeper’s salary.

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You can tell it's Taft on the right because of the mustache.

When I was a kid putting presidential flashcards in my bike spokes, I bestowed upon William Howard Taft the nickname “Taffy Turnover.” Looking back, it doesn’t make any sense, but it marvelously evokes corpulence, so I still use it. All Taffy Turnover wanted was to be a judge, an occupation that would allow him to disguise his figure under a robe while moving nary a muscle. Unfortunately for Taft, his wife Nellie was a go-getter, and she goaded him into a political career. As soon as he fulfilled her ambitions by getting elected president, she had a debilitating stroke. She never savored her victory, and he had to withstand his entire miserable term without love and support.

Taft’s troubles were compounded by the fact that he followed the magnificently robust Teddy Roosevelt in office. When Taft started rolling back some of his predecessor’s activist government policies, he didn’t look like the conventional conservative he was; rather, the invidious contrast with Roosevelt made him look like a Gilded Age holdover bent on corporate oppression.

I have given up weighing myself each day. 'A watched pot never boils.' William Howard Taft

Conservation, the notion that natural resources are finite and need to be managed with vigor by the government, was Roosevelt’s most precious legacy. It wasn’t that he hated cutting trees, burning coal, or damming rivers; he just wanted to cut, burn, and dam them according to a master plan so that there would still be trees, coal, and rivers later on. He and his friend, Gifford Pinchot, whom he appointed to lead the Forestry Service he created, spent his second term “reserving” forests and rivers—that is, keeping them permanently under government control—and hiring geologists, foresters, and hydrologists to manage them.

No tendency is quite so strong in human nature as the desire to lay down rules of conduct for other people. William Howard Taft

Roosevelt didn’t think the way we do, in zero-sum terms of loggers vs. tree-huggers. A classic progressive, he convinced himself that he could make such conflicts disappear simply by deploying expertise. As it happened, Roosevelt exacerbated conflicts everywhere he went.

On the left, John Muir, the naturalist, was against cutting, burning, and damming altogether. Muir was a preservationist, not a conservationist. When Gifford Pinchot supported sheep grazing in a national forest, Muir broke off their friendship. Later, they fought over the Hetch Hetchy dam in Yosemite National Park. Pinchot wanted to build it to provide a water source for San Francisco. Muir said he might as well dam “cathedrals and churches” because “no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the hearts of men.”

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Hetch Hetchy the way Muir wanted it (above) and the way Pinchot and Roosevelt wanted it (below). I hope all those Facebook and Google employees are enjoying their extra long showers.

On the right, plenty of proto-Trumps either didn’t believe the environment could be destroyed or didn’t see the problem with it. A senator from Idaho doubted the entire premise of conservation, arguing that “forestry has been fostered as a policy to uphold the leisurely, lazy dignity of a monarch,” referring to Pinchot, who like Roosevelt grew up pampered in the East fetishizing the self-reliant West.

And then, somewhere in the middle, there was Taffy Turnover, waffling. He couldn’t fathom John Muir, a man who lived for two years in a log cabin with a river running through it so he could listen to the sound of the water. When Muir said, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread,” Taft answered “I’ll just have the bread, thank you.” The only log cabin he wanted to see was the kind that comes in a bottle.

After his election, he opined that the “imagination of those who are pressing [conservation] may outrun the practical facts” and announced that it was time “for a halt in general rhapsodies over conservation.” He appointed as attorney general a lawyer for a subsidiary of the Aluminum Company of America who’d spent his career trying to buy part of the Niagara River. He discontinued the National Conservation Commission and called off the World Conservation Congress, murdering Roosevelt’s pet projects one by one.

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The assumption in 1908 was that Taft was a less masculine version of Roosevelt. Roosevelt made the same assumption, which is why he was so pissed off when it didn't turn out quite that way.

It wasn’t just Roosevelt and Pinchot’s grandiosity that got to him. They also lived on shaky legal ground when they reserved all those acres without congressional approval. As a would-be judge, Taft preferred his legal ground solid. He “re-entered” much of the land that Roosevelt had reserved, and Pinchot accused him of being a “strict constructionist.” (Strict constructionism used to be an insult, not a talking point.)

But Taft didn’t appreciate the right-wing cranks either. Innately cautious, he didn’t approve of mowing down whole forests. Eventually, he would reserve, with Congressional approval, almost as much land as Roosevelt did.

All these tensions boiled over in the famous (if you are a total nerd) Ballinger-Pinchot Affair. Even if you are a total nerd, it can still be hard to get it up for the Ballinger-Pinchot Affair, unless you’re especially captivated by internecine conflict between the Agriculture and Interior Departments. Point is, some accusations led to a Congressional investigation involving Taft’s environmental policies. Even though every historian who’s studied the Affair has determined nobody really did anything wrong, Taft ended up looking bad and even a little bit corrupt. His break with Roosevelt was complete, Taft got his ass kicked in 1912, and a decade later he finally got the Supreme Court seat he’d wanted all along.

This great documentary, based on the great book of the same title by Timothy Egan, explains the early days of the forest service and conservation via the story of a terrible forest fire.

If the good news is that the rest of the world is ignoring American obstinacy on climate change, the bad news is that compared to the last time a new president repudiated his predecessor’s shining environmental record, we’re doing much worse. There is nothing about the Paris Accord that is as revolutionary as what Roosevelt was trying to do. Obama did sign it without Congressional approval, but it’s not like he was trying to nationalize American coal deposits. His sober effort not to ruin the future for everyone wasn’t that different from Taft’s mild conservationism. Trump, meanwhile, resembles the cranks who wanted to turn Old Faithful into something useful like a smelter or a soybean field.

Trump’s foolishness on climate change, then, is something new under the sun. Our only hope is that other world leaders, consumers, the invisible hand of the market, and every other factor at play encourages us to release less CO2 than Trump would like.

There’s not a lot of great stuff on Taft. Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote a joint biography of Roosevelt and Taft, with some muckraking journalists thrown in for good measure. It’s long. There are a few other Taft biographies mixed in, but none that seem to rise to the top. I didn’t read them all. The entry in the American Presidents Series, by Jeffrey Rosen, hasn’t come out yet. On conservation, Samuel P Hays’s Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency, now almost 60 years old, is still your first stop. Douglas Brinkley has written two long books about Roosevelt and conservation. The standard book on the Ballinger-Pinchot Affair, Progressive Politics and Conservation by James L. Penick, is not for the faint of heart. It also has the very worst cover I’ve ever seen. For some reason, Chicago University Press decided to put its own building on the cover of a book about Alaskan coal claims and related controversies. Timothy Egan’s Big Burn is a wonderful read. It’s a little bit mean to Taft–and a little bit overdrawn to help with the narrative–but I can’t blame him because he’s so good.

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