In 1947, Republican Senator Robert A. Taft was at the peak of his power, commanding a coalition of conservative Republicans and southern Democrats to thwart President Harry S. Truman's domestic agenda. Taft's most impressive achievement came in June. The labor-restricting Taft-Hartley Act survived Truman's veto and won Taft the admiration of the press corps. Yet he did not seek the highest political office in the Senate; indeed, the title "majority leader" would not precede his name until 1953. Taft finally accepted the role only after he deemed his ultimate goal–the presidency–to be out of reach. Just a few months after he took the majority leader title, however, he named a successor to the position. No one forced Taft out of the Senate leadership. In the end, a quick and unrelenting illness defeated the man who otherwise may have led the Senate for years to come.
Born in 1889 in Cincinnati, Ohio, Robert Alphonso Taft spent his young years in Ohio and the Phillippines, where his father, William Howard Taft, served as the islands' civil governor. Returning to the States, young Taft excelled at academics. He graduated at the top of his class from a boarding school founded by his uncle, and then won honors at Yale and Harvard Law School while his father occupied the White House.
Rejected by the army due to his poor eyesight, Taft worked for the U.S. Food Administration during World War I. In 1919, the job sent him to Paris, where he distributed humanitarian aid and witnessed firsthand Europe's wartime devastation. A year later, he moved back to Cincinnati and, with his brother, established a law firm representing the interests of streetcar and railroad companies.
In 1921, Taft was elected to the Republican-dominated Ohio state legislature. Financially conservative, he surprised some supporters by opposing Prohibition and taking a stand against the Ku Klux Klan. In his third term, he served as speaker of the House, and in 1931 he joined the state senate. Like many Republicans, Taft lost his reelection campaign in the Democratic sweep of 1932, the year Franklin Roosevelt gained the White House and the Democrats won control of both houses of Congress. Disastrous to the Republican party, the 1932 elections sparked Taft's lifelong crusade against liberal economic policies.
Taft spent much of the 1930s preparing for a larger role in politics. In 1938, he entered the race for the U.S. Senate. Taft won a difficult primary, then beat the incumbent Ohio Democratic senator, Robert Bulkley, in the general election.
From the start of his Senate career, Taft participated in heated floor debates. As Roosevelt's most vocal congressional critic, he denounced the president's domestic and foreign policy. He accused New Dealers of deriding the foundation of the American system, "individual opportunity, initiative, and freedom." And, as a staunch isolationist, he fought against the increased military appropriations and international agreements that threatened to draw the U.S. into war.
Considered a dry and uninspiring orator, Taft, nevertheless, proved to be an effective legislator. He often worked late into the night studying the Senate rules and controversial issues in order to outmaneuver opponents in the chamber and behind closed doors. Self-contained and serious, Taft had few friends, but he earned the reverence of like-minded colleagues.
In 1940, he attempted to win the Republican presidential nomination. Taft's anti-war stance, however, as well as his chilly demeanor, cost him support, and the nomination went to Wendell Willkie, then a little known attorney from Indiana. After Willkie's resounding defeat in the general election, Taft fought even harder against Roosevelt's policies. And when Harry S. Truman assumed the presidency in 1945, Taft turned his attention to derailing Truman's postwar plans for the nation.
By the start of his second term in 1945, Taft set the agenda for conservatives from both parties. As the creator and chair of the Republican Steering Committee, the insider organization that evolved into the Republican Policy Committee, he generally opposed any measure he considered "big government" or anti-business, but approved increased expenditures for public housing and public education. He remained an outspoken critic of liberalism, however, and condemned Truman's domestic record when promoting Republican candidates for Congress.
The 1946 mid-term elections brought the Senate and the House back in the control of the Republican party. Taft could have become majority leader, but declined. He had no interest in performing the mundane scheduling tasks that once dominated the lives of floor leaders. Instead, he had Wallace White, an aging figurehead, take the job, while he directed his colleagues from his positions as chair of the Republican Policy Committee and chair of the Committee on Labor and Public Welfare. White accepted his minor role in the party and, in fact, freely admitted to journalists that, for more information, "Taft is the man you want to see."
The 80th Congress (1947-1949) made Taft a national figure. Not only did he obstruct legislation supported by Truman, but he pushed significant bills of his own to passage. Determined to curtail the pro-labor Wagner Act (1935), Taft worked hard to restrict the power of unions. Since his bills would have to achieve a two-thirds, "super majority" vote of senators and representatives to override a Truman veto, he designed the measures to be palatable to moderates on both sides of the aisle. Taft's strategy paid off. As expected, Truman vetoed the Taft-Hartley Labor Act, which limited the use of strikes and prevented unions from donating directly to political campaigns. The House and Senate, however, overturned this veto, as well as a veto on a tax-reduction bill. The dual victories prompted one writer in The New Republic to state, "Congress now consists of the House, the Senate and Bob Taft."
For all his legislative power, Taft still could not break into presidential politics. He made another run for the nomination in 1948, but once again, the Republican convention passed him over. This time, the delegates chose one of Taft's political rivals to head the ticket, Thomas E. Dewey, a progressive Republican who represented the more liberal, eastern wing of the party. In the general elections, Truman narrowly defeated Dewey, and the Democrats took back the Senate.
According to Majority Leader Wallace White, the year 1948 marked Taft's "sad, worst period." Frustrated and embittered, Taft eventually rallied and gained the upper hand over the new majority leader, Democrat Scott Lucas. In fact, Taft's coalition of conservatives outnumbered the regular Democrats. Lucas failed to gain recognition as an effective leader, while Taft retained his reputation as the most powerful member of Congress. Taft lived up to his nickname, "Mr. Republican," and unified his party against the Truman administration.
In 1952, Taft made his final attempt to win the Republican nomination for president, but was outmatched by his competition, the popular General Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower won election in 1952, as did several other Republican candidates, and once again, the GOP commanded the Senate. Rather than pick another "front man" to express his views, Taft became the official majority leader in January 1953. In the first months of his term, he enjoyed a good relationship with Eisenhower. The president and Senate majority leader became close, working together on policies that easily earned congressional approval. For once, Taft did not have to mastermind strategies to pass or block controversial legislation. According to political writer Robert Merry, these were the "days of Taft's greatest glory."
The glorious days did not last long. In April, Taft experienced a sharp pain in his hip, the first sign of the cancer that had spread throughout his body. There was nothing he could do but choose his own successor to his position. Four days after Taft's death on July 31, William Knowland became the majority leader. He assumed Taft's title but not his role in the Senate. Nobody could replace the man who had achieved so much in sixty-three years, a gifted legislator, admired by many, scorned by others, and respected, if grudgingly, by all.