Issues & Insights

Robert Taft: A Senator for All Seasons

Contrary to popular belief, the biggest fraud in American politics is not Rep. George Santos.  Nor is it the not-so-Native American Sen. Elizabeth Warren.  Nor is it the “Stolen Valor” Sen. Richard Blumenthal.  It is not even Joe Biden, whose fabulism stretches so far back that Johnny Carson joked about it. 

The biggest frauds in American politics are the 27 “Republican” members of Congress who voted for the obscene $1.66 trillion Omnibus Spending Bill last December, 16 of whom still “serve.”

In stark contrast to their example is the memory of Ohio Republican Sen. Robert A. Taft, who died 70 years ago today — July 31, 1953. 

Among the few outstanding American statesmen and the fewer whose greatness was contemporaneously acknowledged, Taft’s destiny seemed preordained.  First in his class in high school, college (Yale), and law school (Harvard), Taft was the scion of a great American political dynasty and the son of the only man to hold the offices of U.S. president and Supreme Court chief justice. Leaving no branch of government unmastered by his family, Taft scaled the legislative ladder. In the Ohio legislature, he led efforts to reform the state’s antiquated tax code, opposed prohibition and the Ku Klux Klan, and rose to become speaker of the lower house before graduating to the State Senate.  But it was as a U.S. senator that Taft became one for the ages.

Elected in 1938, Taft immediately became renowned for his intelligence, parliamentary skill, and principled opposition to government intervention at home and abroad. Impervious to interest groups, Taft never broke an agreement, especially with his constituents. He was always the man they voted for. Taft eschewed political deception and courageously adhered to his principles, garnering universal respect. 

Senate chronicler Allen Drury called Taft one of the Senate’s “strongest and ablest men” and modeled on Taft the virtuous lawmakers in his 1959 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Advise and Consent.”  Fresh off winning the 1948 World Series, liberal baseball owner Bill Veeck was asked to run against Taft in 1950.  Veeck declined out of his admiration for the senator, describing him as “one guy who knew how to say no, a rare talent in politics.”  And John F. Kennedy, who served briefly with Taft on the Senate Labor Committee, included Taft as the final senator profiled in his Pulitzer Prize-winning history “Profiles in Courage.”

Highlighted by Kennedy was Taft’s principled opposition to the Nuremberg Trials as an ex post facto expression of revenge by the victorious Allies. Taft’s stance netted no votes and may have even cost him the 1948 GOP presidential nomination, but such was Taft’s adamantine integrity.  His opposition to the internment of Japanese-Americans also won him few plaudits.

Yet seven decades after his death, Taft’s legacy looms large. Making the most of the few years of Republican control of the Senate during his tenure, Taft expertly won such bipartisan support for his crowning legislative achievement that when it was vetoed by President Truman, Congress overrode the veto. Today, the Taft-Hartley Act remains the basic federal labor law.  A key provision allows states to adopt “right-to-work” laws that are in force in a majority of states including such labor union strongholds as West Virginia and, until this year, Michigan. 

But nowhere has Taftian thinking been more relevant than where it has been most sorely missed— post-Cold War American foreign policy. Taft opposed American participation in the U.N. and NATO and counseled against American involvement in land wars in both Asia and Europe.  If the reasons for Taft’s foreign policy views were not obvious then, they are now.

One purported admirer of Taft’s was Republican Sen. Rob Portman, also from Ohio, who went so far as to occupy Taft’s Capitol Hill offices and trade desks with Sen. Al Franken on the Senate floor so he could have the one that belonged to Taft. Unfortunately, that is where the similarities end. 

Not only did Portman vote for the Omnibus Bill on his way out the door, but voters could not keep track of his vacillating positions.  During his career in Congress, Portman supported a federal definition of marriage, then took the position that marriage should be defined by the states, then re-endorsed a federal definition of marriage, albeit a different definition than the one he started with.  It is safe to assume that there will be no Capitol Hill monuments to Portman like the monument and carillon that stand majestically in Taft’s honor.

Not long after his death, a Senate committee named Taft one of the five greatest senators in history.  Seventy years later, that assessment still holds.

Paul F. Petrick is an attorney in Cleveland, Ohio.

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