THE NEGATIVE ZONE #005: TAFT 2012 by JASON HELLER
by Andrew Neal
So I had this really great idea where I’d review a political book because Election Day is next week. Who wants to be in charge of stopping me the next time I have a really great idea?
Let’s start with the good. Taft 2012, by Jason Heller, has a really great cover, and is based around an excellent idea for a book: President William Howard Taft mysteriously awakens in the year 2012 and finds himself thrust into the political spotlight. This was a great idea because Taft was a really interesting man and political figure. He was thrust toward the presidency by Theodore Roosevelt and his wife, Nellie, despite the fact that he didn’t want to be president.
I’ve done some reading about Taft, and I’ll confess that I was drawn to him because of his mustache, an awesome photograph where he’s riding a water buffalo, and the fact that he was so obese he got stuck in the white house bathtub. Once I began researching the man, however, I was enthralled by his personality and moral code. Taft was a really interesting dude, but I probably never would have learned about him if I hadn’t been excited to learn about the fat guy in the tub.
So that’s the good, and most of what I have listed in the good category is that Taft was a really interesting character in real life.
Unfortunately the book itself just doesn’t have any meat to it. The author doesn’t go far enough down any of the roads he starts on. Here’s an example: When Taft meets the President of the United States, the President is described as a tall, thin man. The most interesting thing Taft notes is that he isn’t wearing a waistcoat. There’s no mention made of the fact that the President is black. This would have been an excellent opportunity to pit Taft against himself: he was politically progressive for his time, but the experience of meeting an African-American US President could certainly have challenged him. What’s that, you say? Maybe this is an alternate timeline in which the the President in 2012 is not Barack Obama? Well, he’s not named as such, but the folks who held the office before him are named, up through George W. Bush. It feels exceptionally cheap, as though this is maybe too much of an important subject for the author to deal with.
To be fair, the author does try to address this issue later, when Taft meets his great granddaughter’s African-American husband, and feels weird for a whole scene until he meets their bi-racial child and falls in love. This very speedy resolution seemed only to exaggerate the avoidance of the issue in regard to the current US President, as far as I was concerned.
The rest of the book felt the same to me, though there was nothing as egregious as the fact that race of President Obama was completely thrown to the wayside… until the epilogue.
In case you intend to read this book: here comes a spoiler.
The epilogue of Taft 2012 is a quote from William Howard Taft, who is being sworn in as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in the year 2021 after being appointed by his great granddaughter, President Rachel Taft. I believe this is supposed to make us happy, because this is the position that Taft truly wanted for himself, and here at the end of the book, he finally receives his fondest desire… except that he also achieved it in real life, and it wasn’t through nepotism! The real Taft was appointed to the seat by President Warren G. Harding. Maybe someone with no awareness of the real Taft’s life trajectory could have enjoyed this ending, but to me, it seemed like a less impressive way to get Taft to the same place he got in real life, just presented without the fact that he actually deserved to be there.
Here’s my recommendation: Don’t read Taft 2012. Do pick up some books about the real Taft. His real life was much more strange and fascinating than this fictional analogue.