By James M. Perry
Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio , the Republican Party's leading conservative in the 1940s and 1950s, wanted to tear apart most of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal almost as badly as today's tea-party Republicans want to tear apart Obamacare.
"If Mr. Roosevelt is not a Communist today," he grumbled in 1936, "he is bound to become one."
Senator Taft, says Geoffrey Kabaservice, author of a book about the decline and fall of the GOP's moderate wing, "inherited the uprightness, ambition, intelligence, and belief in rugged individualism and free enterprise that had defined the Taft family since his grandfather settled in Cincinnati in 1839."
Kabaservice speculates that Robert Taft , the son of President Wiliam Howard Taft (but a lot skinnier), "likely would have failed the ideological litmus test too many Republicans now seek to apply to would-be party members." Kabaservice is being way too delicate -- for Taft wouldn't come close to being accepted by today's hard-right Republicans.
Taft showed an independent streak right from his earliest days in Ohio politics. He was, for example, a vigorous opponent of the Ku Klux Klan, when it was not thought to be a safe stand to take. He upset thousands by coming out against prohibition and probably even more thousands by opposing a bill requiring all Ohio public school teachers to read ten verses of the Bible in class every day.
The crucial difference between Taft and modern conservatives is that he was not, in Kabaservice's words, "bound by ideology." "It is compromise," John F. Kennedy said in his prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage (one of the chapters is about Taft), "that prevents each set of reformers from crushing the group at the other end of the political spectrum." Taft understood that. The tea party doesn't.
Kabaservice says that "when confronted with an issue, his response was not to follow polls or conservative tablet-keepers, but to study the issue... and only then arrive at his own conclusions." He actually left his Washington office and looked at housing conditions for the poor, and found them deplorable. That led him to support urban slum clearance and public housing. He even wanted to increase the minimum wage.
It was on questions of national security and international affairs that Taft came apart. "Taft has the best mind in Washington until he makes it up," was a critical line that made the rounds in Washington. He made his mind up early on that he wanted nothing to do with World War 2 -- no ships or arms for Britain and her allies, no entanglements at all. He only relented when Japanese bombs fell on Pearl Harbor.
He maintained all his years in politics this wonderful quirky streak (for a big-time politician) of taking highly controversial stands that were bound to affect his political ambitions. During the war, for example, he opposed bundling up Japanese-Americans and interning them for the duration. Following the war, he took an even riskier stand -- he came out against the Nuremberg trials for Nazi war criminals. It was not possible, he said, to justify the trials "in which the people who won the war were the prosecutors, the judges, and the alleged victims -- all at the same time." That might be a sustainable argument today -- it was one met with anger and heated denunciation then.
He was wrong on lots of things, bloodyminded on others, but, according to his official Senate biography, he was a man of principle, "admired by many, scorned by others, and respected, if grudgingly, by all."
James M. Perry, a prominent veteran political reporter, is contributing regular observations for post-gazette.com. Mr. Perry was the chief political correspondent of The Wall Street Journal until his retirement. Prior to that, he covered national politics for the Dow Jones weekly, The National Observer.