Tag Archives: William Howard Taft

King, Obama, TR and Taft: thoughts about America

Today, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I’m thinking not just about the great civil rights leader but also about the state of the nation — where we’ve been, where we are, where we might be going. That leads me to reflections on a couple of former presidents, and also on the challenges facing our newest president, Barack Hussein Obama, who will be sworn into office tomorrow. And I’m thinking of what advice Dr. King, who never held a public office but was one of our greatest leaders ever, might have for Mr. Obama, who takes office at a time of multiple perils and instability.

So, first: to Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, the man who succeeded TR as president in 1908 and whose bid for a second term Roosevelt scuttled in his own failed third-party campaign in 1912, awarding the presidency to the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson. We don’t usually think of Taft as one of our more nimble presidential thinkers, but he did have his moments, as Candice Millard passes along in her fine book The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, which we discussed earlier here. Here’s what Taft had to say about the man who first put him into the White House and later kicked him out:

“The truth is, he believes in war and wishes to be a Napoleon and to die in the battle field. He has the spirit of the old berserkers.”

Roosevelt was a great man, but we’ve had enough of that. You can’t say George W. Bush has the spirit of a berserker — this is not a man who wants to go onto a battlefield and join in the carnage himself — but he has acted with an impetuous relish for war when patience and diplomacy would have served the entire world far better. Obama, we have the feeling, is not a rash man. Yet, as all presidents are, he will always be pushed by those advising quick and violent action.

So it’s good — not just today, but all days — to listen to Dr. King. Here are a few of his thoughts, for Barack Obama and for all of us:

“Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies – or else? The chain reaction of evil – hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars – must be broken, or else we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.”

“Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.”

“Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

“One of the greatest casualties of the war in Vietnam is the Great Society… shot down on the battlefield of Vietnam.”

“Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.”

“Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.”

“War is a poor chisel to carve out tomorrow.”

“All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem.”

Lighten up, lad: Diamond Jim, we hardly knew ye

Ah, 2008. The year when the fat got lean and the lean got leaner. The year when the big fat lie led to the big fat crash. The year when the faked memoir devolved from the merely mercenary and narcissistic to the unbearably sad and pitiable. The year, more cheerfully, when Obama won and the Yankees lost.

Oh, well. We’ll always have our heroes to look up to.

Oops. Turns out, Diamond Jim Brady was a fraud.
Or maybe just a garden-variety (make that stockyard-variety) glutton. Or maybe it wasn’t him so much as his image-mongers, who seem to have larded the truth like it was a prize-winning pie crust at the county fair. David Kamp, in a mortally funny piece of debunkery in this morning’s New York Times, has pricked Diamond Jim’s balloon, reducing his reputation like so much Slim-Fast: Turns out Brady was the bloated beginning of a reputational Ponzi scheme that leaves us tail-enders holding a severely depleted bag.

Granted, Brady’s an odd sort of hero in the first place — not a role model so much as a bigger-than-life phenomenon, a sort of Zeus (or maybe Dionysus) of the foodie set. Anything you could eat, he could eat bigger. And did, so the stories go, four or five times a day, in all-out cram-athons, often in the company of his gustatory inamorata Lillian Russell, the even more fabled songbird of the Gilded Age, whose appetites seemingly rivaled Catherine the Great’s.
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