26 NOVEMBER 1965, Page 26

The Vast Chief Justice

William Howard Taft: Chief Justice. By Alpheus Thomas Mason. (Oldbourne, 50s.) WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT was the fattest man ever to become President of the United States. He was also the only man to become President and then Chief Justice of the United States. And he was perfectly sincere when he said, after a year or two as Chief Justice, that he had forgotten ever being President. It is therefore with justi- fication that Professor Mason concentrates on Taft as Chief Justice, even though this may make the common reader think that the failure Of Taft as President was absolute and that all the criticisms made of him, e.g. in the Ballinger case, were justified. He was not a great Presi- dent, but there have been worse Presidents be- fore—and since.

Professor Mason makes no exaggerated claims for Taft and puts the evidence about his role as Chief Justice fairly before the reader. Having already written admirable lives of two very learned Justices, Brandeis and Stone, both of whom were mat vu by Chief Justice Taft, he has an excellent central position from which to judge Taft. And on the whole he justifies the choice made by Warren Gamaliel Harding and Harry A. Daugherty in choosing Taft to succeed Chief Justice White whom Taft, as President, had appointed. Taft's chief claim to fame is his reor- ganisation of the federal court system, and this is a story fascinating to the lawyer if a little exotic for the layman. Nearly all of what Taft tried to do has since been done, and none of the fears expressed by Senator Walsh, Justice Brandeis, etc., have been justified. That is his monument. But although this is not a 'life' in the ordinary sense of the term, it casts a great deal of light on Taft as a man, as a Republican, as a 'WASP.' He imputed motives to Brandeis worthy of the meanest country club anti-Semite. His comments on the election of 1928 reveal his resentment that People like the Tafts should be threatened by the rise of people like Al Smith. There was a thin Bob Taft trying to get out of the vast Chief Justice! And if the Taft dynasty, right -down to 1964, has never quite come off as a Political force, some of the reasons for this are made obvious in this candid and valuable work.