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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 314

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This is the grave of the vile right-wing anti-union extremist senator from Ohio, Robert Taft.

The son of William Howard Taft and grandson of former attorney general Alphonso Taft, Robert had one job as a person: serving corporate interests in Republican politics. He did this very well. He was born in 1889 in Cincinnati to the wealth that he spent his life serving, went to the Philippines when his father was named governor after America’s unjust imperial conquest of those islands through grotesque tactics that would 75 years later be associated with people such as William Calley in Vietnam, then went to Yale and Harvard Law School. No door wouldn’t open for the son of William Howard Taft. It didn’t hurt of course that he was a pretty smart guy on his own. He practiced law for a few years back in Cincinnati, then worked for the Food and Drug Administration for awhile during World War I when his eyesight proved too bad to serve in the military, and then started his own law firm back in Porkopolis. At the FDA he had worked under Herbert Hoover and was a huge supporter of his going forward.

In 1920, Taft was elected to the Ohio House and served as a speaker in 1926. Here, he took the lead in opposing the KKK, which was powerful in many states in the 1920s, nowhere more so than next door Indiana, and over which political battles took a partisan shape, with Republicans generally opposing the Klan and Democrats supporting them. He then went to the Ohio Senate in 1930. He lost his reelection bid in 1932, but remained powerful. Taft was a rock-ribbed conservative, a complete lap-dog to corporate interests. This put him at odds with his brother Charlie, who was not the intellectual equivalent of Bob, but who was politically much more moderate. Being a toady did not have to run in the Taft family, but it sure did with Bob.

Taft’s corporate friends helped get him elected to the U.S. Senate in 1938, as part of the reaction against the New Deal, which they all hated. Taft instantly took the lead as the biggest anti-New Dealer in the Senate, declaring the whole thing a socialist plot against America, frothing against the National Labor Relations Act and unions as a whole, and revolted by the farm subsidies that helped a whole lot of his rural constituents. He wasn’t quite as right-wing as some, accepting Social Security for instance. But his intellectual heft and general right-wing extremism made him a favorite of those who hated everything FDR stood for. Naturally, he also opposed American intervention in World War II until the last minute and then immediately after the war was over, returned to this sort of isolationism, trying desperately to sabotage the Bretton Woods agreement and he remained very suspicious of NATO. He even criticized the Nuremberg Trials as a violation of justice. He thought Lend-Lease was an atrocity and was heavily criticized by liberal Republicans for his utter indifference to Nazi domination over Europe, feeling America’s isolation because of oceans meant that what happened in both Europe and Asia did not matter to this nation.

This extremism hurt him in Ohio. He did win reelection in 1944 but by a sliver and that was not a great year for Democrats so he nearly lost it entirely on his own. Before this, Taft was the Republican Golden Boy, destined to be president. After this, the shine was decidedly off, even though he remained a conservative favorite.

After the war, the tides of reaction overwhelmed America. No one took advantage more than Robert Taft. This was a man who despised unions with every bit of his soul. So he was going to do what he could to destroy them. That led to the Taft-Hartley Act, the most despised law in the history of American labor. Republicans won both houses of Congress in 1946. The 1946 strike wave was an amazing year of militancy for American workers, even though it really wasn’t radical at all, with workers mostly just wanting more money. But these strikes helped contribute to the Republican wave that fall. Taft thus played the leading role in creating the legislation to make sure that never happened again. Taft-Hartley has all sorts of disgusting provisions, including giving the president the right to intervene in strikes to force a cooling-off period, allowed for so-called “right to work” at the state level that Republicans continue to fight for today, banned all sorts of supposedly “unfair” union practices, and forced union leaders to sign anti-communist affidavits, a direct attack on the radical CIO unions, albeit one supported by the AFL and a lot of rank and file workers. When Truman vetoed this garbage bill, Taft led the charge to get conservative Democrats and Republicans to unite to defeat it. And when Wayne Morse led a major effort took place in 1949 to repeal the worst provisions, especially the presidential injunction, Taft managed to beat it back.

Other than public housing and slum clearance, which he did actively support, Taft remained a prototype right-wing corporate hack. He accused Truman of leading the nation toward left-wing totalitarianism through the Fair Deal. He did everything he could to forestall any meaningful health care legislation and worked very hard to protect corporations from taxes, although the tides were against him on this at that time. He thought former TVA head and liberal planner David Lilienthal “soft on communism” while only reluctantly supporting the Marshall Plan. He believed the Korean War was unconstitutional because of the lack of an official declaration of war from Congress, but the real issue is that he was still a 1920s-30s-style isolationist in an age when that was a very bad idea. I guess one on the left could look at Taft as someone who resisted American militarization of the world, but that would be short-sighted and naive. Plus, Taft was all about arming Israel.

In 1950, Taft won re-election again. Learning from his near miss in 1944, he took his campaign very seriously and also benefited from Ohio fundamentally being a conservative anti-union state except in a few locales, and so a lot of conservative Democrats chose him over the unions in Cleveland and Youngstown and Canton. By this time, he had acquired his famous nickname “Mr. Republican” and was seen as a leading Republican candidate for the presidency in 1952. But that did not happen, as he had too many enemies and was no sure victor like Eisenhower. Despite being a total corporate hack on 99 percent of issues, Taft’s support for public housing made him suspicious to the hard-right corporate leaders, while his conservatism on everything else made him suspicious to the moderates. In fact, he was seen as a strong possibility for the nomination in 1948, but his poor showing in 1944 plus the public housing support led John Bricker to basically call Taft a socialist (!!) and Dewey got another shot which he failed to win. But also, despite Bricker, Dewey was a more moderate choice and moderates controlled the party, not the hard right. Taft probably would have won the nomination in 1952, but Dewey and other moderates, scared that Republicans would lose a 6th straight election with such an extreme figure, convinced Eisenhower to run instead and Taft couldn’t beat him, though it was tight.

Taft might not have been president, but he did get selected to be Senate Majority Leader. He relished this role. Many said that realizing he would never be president, he became less abrasive. He and Eisenhower golfed together frequently and even though he was still critical of much of Ike’s Cold War foreign policy, they started developing a close relationship. But it didn’t last long because Taft got pancreatic cancer and went fast. I hate Bob Taft with tremendous passion. I think he was one of the worst people to ever serve in the Senate and has an impact today that still hurts the nation, but no one needs to die of that. He was 63 years old.

Robert Taft is buried in Indian Hill Episcopal Presbyterian Churchyard, Cincinnati, Ohio.

This grave visit was supported by LGM reader contributions. As always, I am incredibly grateful for you allowing this series to continue. As I mentioned the other day, I am using any contributions this week to present about my book at the Maryland Book Festival in Baltimore late next month, as well to visit some of the many graves in that area. Therefore, if you would like this series to visit AFL-CIO head George Meany or isolationist senator Gerald Nye, both buried in Maryland, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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