“As recreation, I have played many rounds of golf with friends and acquaintances,” Taft said in his public apology to Ohioans. “I paid for some of these outings, while others I did not. I have now confirmed that forty-five golf outings over a period of seven years exceeded $75.00 in value and therefore should have been reported on my financial disclosure statements. In addition, over the same period of time, six other social events and one gift were not disclosed. ... As Governor, I have made it clear that I expect all public employees to follow both the letter and the spirit of the ethics laws, and have demanded no less of myself. I have personally failed to live up to those expectations, as well as the expectations of the public, and I am disappointed in myself.”
The 63-year-old Taft has mostly himself to blame for these lapses. However, he may also wish to lay off some responsibility on Thomas W. Noe, whom he accompanied on two of the golf outings that helped make him “the first Ohio governor ever charged with a crime.” As the Cincinnati Enquirer notes, Noe is a “rare coin dealer accused of losing more than $10 million in investments at the [Ohio] Bureau of Workers Compensation. Noe also is under investigation by a Toledo grand jury for concealing campaign contributions to President Bush. Ongoing probes of Noe, a former member of the state Board of Regents and Ohio Turnpike Commission, [have] led to the discovery of more than $200 million lost by BWC investors in high-risk ventures.” It was evidently in the course of investigating this “Coingate” scandal that Taft’s ethical blunders were unearthed.
But it wouldn’t be completely out of the realm of reason for the governor to cast some sly blame for his plight upon his most famous ancestor, President William Howard Taft. After all, “Big Bill” Taft is credited not only with being the first White House occupant to throw out the initial ball in a baseball game, and with introducing the “seventh-inning stretch” to the same sport, but he was also the first president to take up golf.
Born in Cincinnati in 1857, “Willie” Taft (as he was known in boyhood) was the son of Alphonso Taft, one of Ulysses S. Grant’s secretaries of war. Encouraged toward “self-denial and enthusiastic hard work,” the future 27th president trained in law and served in a variety of roles--assistant prosecuting attorney, U.S. solicitor general, Federal Circuit Court judge, civil governor-general of the Philippines--before being tapped in 1903 as President Theodore Roosevelt’s secretary of war. The intense and colorful Roosevelt and the amiable, intelligent, and good-humored Taft had become friends in 1890, and as president “TR” placed great trust in his war secretary. Once, when Roosevelt went on a tour of the American West, he assured reporters that all would be well in Washington, D.C., during his absence. As he put it, “I have left Taft sitting on the lid”--a quip that, considering “Big Bill’s” size (6 feet tall and 300 or more pounds), must have coaxed a few chuckles from the ink-fingered wretches.
Republican Taft fought a lifelong battle with weight. It’s said that his mother started calling him “pudgy-wudgy boy” before he turned 5, and the legend goes that he once got stuck in the presidential bathtub, and it took six men to pull him free. (The offending fixture was soon replaced by a new model, big enough to hold all the men who’d installed it.) “Taft was the most polite man in Washington,” went an early 20th-century joke. “One day he gave up his seat on a streetcar to three women.” It was his wife, Nellie, who reportedly encouraged him to take a swing at golf as a means of controlling his bulk. The game also served as a refuge, following his election to the presidency (with Roosevelt’s backing) in 1908. According to the Web site American President.org, “Some western voters--those who equated Taft’s Unitarianism with atheism--thought his golf playing indecent, if not immoral. His love for the sport caused a golf boom in the nation, doubling the number of players on public courses. [Taft’s] affection for golf also caused political problems during his presidency, when critics thought he would do well to spend less time on the links and more time at work in the White House.”
But the president seemed to take it all in stride. After confronting a contingent of congressmen with whom he disagreed, Taft announced: “They have my last word, and now I want to show my scorn for further negotiations by spending the afternoon on the golf links.” Describing the essence of this sport, he said: “I don’t know of any game that is so provocative of profanity as golf. I don’t know any game that makes one so ashamed of his profanity.” The president also used manicured courses as places to meet with industrialists such as John D. Rockefeller and Henry Clay Frick. And (despite attacks of gout in both feet) he retreated often to the greens during the 1912 presidential election, during which Roosevelt--upset both at his successor’s coziness with the Republican Party’s archconservatives and the Taft administration’s antitrust lawsuit against U.S. Steel--challenged “Big Bill’s” re-election. Taft, who eschewed a wearisome nationwide speaking tour, spent much of the 1912 campaign season at the “Summer White House” in Beverly, Massachusetts, just northeast of Boston, and golfed frequently at the Myopia Hunt Club. In the end, Roosevelt, as the nominee of the newly formed Progressive (or “Bull Moose”) Party, split the GOP electorate and threw the race to Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic governor of New Jersey. Taft actually came in third in this contest, behind both Wilson and TR. Yet for Taft, the loss may not have been wholly disagreeable. He hadn’t really wanted to be president in the first place. He’d actually aspired to be Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, a post he finally achieved in 1921, chosen by President Warren G. Harding.
So Bob Taft comes by his golf enthusiasm honestly--a pastime passed down from his great-grandfather. But of course, President Taft never found himself scandalized because of his fondness for the game. Governor Taft may or may not survive this messy association with the links; he’s insisting he won’t resign his office, with 16 more months to go in his second term. Democratic opponents, though, are already clubbing him over the head with his admitted ethical lapses. “Clearly, it’s just the tip of the iceberg,” intones Representative Steve Driehaus, Democratic minority whip in the Ohio Legislature. “It’s blatantly obvious that there is a culture of corruption that permeates government in the state of Ohio.” Bob Taft’s failure here may, in fact, work out well for Democrats. As Bruce Reed noted recently in his Slate column, “The Has-Been”:
Over the past decade, one of Democrats’ biggest trouble spots has been the inability to win statewide in Ohio. Republican senators have replaced the old Democratic lions, John Glenn and Howard Metzenbaum. The governorship has been in Republican hands for the last 15 years. As 2004 demonstrated, Ohio is the pivotal swing state in presidential elections. [Bill] Clinton carried it narrowly in 1992 and 1996; Bush did the same in 2000 and 2004. Ohio has always been important--birthplace to more presidents than any state except Virginia. But for Democrats, who have lost every southern state twice in a row, Ohio’s 20 electoral votes are now especially crucial.With Governor Taft now pretty much neutered as an effective GOP spokesman in the Buckeye State, and after the very narrow loss earlier this month by Democrat and Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett, running in a special congressional election in Ohio’s Republican-dominated Second District, even former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich worries for the GOP’s future in Ohio--a state also reeling under its number of deaths in Iraq. If the governor’s woes worsen, or if the Ohio economy continues only to sputter out of the Bush recession, Democrats may be applauding victories in the state come November 2006. Who would have thought that so much could come from one man’s fondness for golf, the sport Mark Twain once called “a good walk spoiled”? Fore!
READ MORE: “Taft Family Legacy Tainted?” by Malia Rulon and Allen Howard (The Enquirer); “Ohio Democrats Mull Governor Impeachment,” by Matt Leingang (AP); “Ohio GOP Reeling from Twin Scandals,” by Andrew Welsh-Huggins (AP); “Calls for Taft to Resign,” by Mark Niquette (The Columbus Dispatch).