Jim Cullen: Review of Jason Heller's "Taft: A Novel" (Quirk, 2012)





Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. He is completing a study of Hollywood actors as historians slated for publication by Oxford University Press later this year. Cullen blogs at American History Now.

The wacky premise of this novel merits a look. On March 4, 1913, on the final day of a presidency wedged between the more commanding Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, the outgoing president William Howard Taft -- all 300+ pounds of him -- somehow slips through a time portal and reappears on the White House grounds in late 2011. Shot by a secret service agent terrified by the muddy beast, Taft, he of stuck-in-the-bathtub lore, is nursed back to health and introduced to the 21st century, where there's a lot more affection for the 27th president than there ever was a century ago.

There's some entertainment to be had in this fish-out-of-water story. "Good God, man. Is this all truly necessary? I must look like a cut-rate Manila harlot," the one-time administrator of the Philippines says. He wonders what ever happened to good old tap water, and expresses surprise that cell phones didn't come along sooner.

First-time novelist Heller, a music journalist and writer of genre fiction, renders Taft as colorful cartoon, which is mildly amusing, though all the attention to his gargantuan appetite and handlebar mustache becomes a bit tiresome after a while. (Other characters are a good deal less compelling.) We watch Taft as he visits familiar places, gets drunk, gets laid, and passively finds himself drawn into presidential politics (just as he was the first time around).  Heller augments his traditional storyline with a series of mock documents -- television talk show transcripts; Secret Service memos; twitter feeds, polling data -- that contextualize the story.

In this fictional world, Barack Obama is still president, running against an unnamed Republican. Taft's politics are a bit of a cipher, which is at least partially Heller's point. One of the great ironies here, of course, is that the trust-busting, good-government policies of a man who was perceived as a conservative Republican then puts him far to the left of anyone in the GOP now, and indeed far to the left of many Democrats. But libertarians are quick to note that his tax rates were lower than any today, and a dissatisfied general electorate rallies to anyone who seems authentic. So it is that we witness the birth of the Taft Party, an apparent satire of the Tea Party in all it incoherence (we get a particularly wrong-headed discussion about immigration from a surveillance tape of two men discussing Taft while standing in front of their respective urinals).

Heller weaves in a subplot involving Big Agriculture that figures in the climax of the story. But having seized on an arresting premise, he has a little trouble maintaining control of his material, which takes a bit long to develop and which fizzles somewhat. But it's nevertheless a fast, light read.

Taft is revealing in the way it taps a longstanding American nostalgia that goes back at least as far as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. We want straight shooters, until they start telling us things we don't want to hear. The difference now is that we literally can't (as opposed to won't) afford the pretty promises of a military that will always remain powerful, services that will always be adequate, and taxes that will always be low. I suspect that the longings Heller describes are real enough and available to be exploited by those whose with less scruples than Taft, one of the few good men to be president, and, not coincidentally, like other good men -- a pair of Adams, an elder Bush, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter -- were also one-term presidents. Maybe what we really need an Iron Lady (with Meryl Streep's wit) instead.

Note: There is an accompanying website for Taft 2012, and a Facebook page worth a connection. It's fun to see updates like, "Time lauded Mitt Romney for using "clear, concise, declarative sentences" in this week's debates. We don't expect much today, do we?" Sounds like he might be a good commentator to have around for the presidential campaign.


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