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Grit and the Gardener
of Teddy Roosevelt and William Taft
Historical Fantasy by Paul Bacon
Featured Reading for "The Americana Project,"
Salt Theater, New York, November 6, 2000
The love lost between President Teddy Roosevelt and his successor William Taft was captured on the cover of Puck magazine in 1906. Taft, a plump little prince with an oversize crown, sits atop the broad shoulders of Roosevelt, drawn as an enormous, bucktoothed king. While this described their cozy relationship before Taft took over the high office, a very different picture emerged as the men began clutching at each other’s throats.
Taft initially served as secretary of war under Roosevelt. A jolly, affable sidekick, Taft seemed to perfectly complement T.R.’s infamous temper. He flourished in his post, all the while aspiring to a seat on the Supreme Court. But Roosevelt had his own designs on Taft’s future and coaxed him into launching a successive presidential bid.
Taft swept into the White House, and the exiting president took a highly publicized hunting trip to Africa. There, before throngs of reporters, Roosevelt sought to relive his legendary formative youth. Once a frail, asthmatic violin student exploring America’s untamed West, Roosevelt blossomed again in the wilds of the "Dark Continent," shooting animals he’d never even heard of before.
Back in Washington, Taft’s slow, deliberate style of leadership was proving ill-suited to the intense pressures of running the nation. News of his political bumbling quickly reached Roosevelt, causing the infuriated ex-president to cut short a wildebeest slaughter for an immediate return to the capital.
Roosevelt was sneaking through the White House bushes when he spotted Taft out on the front lawn, which was then an undeveloped plot of farmland. Taft, the last president to keep the grounds in their bucolic state, was introducing his bashful granddaughter to a very special constituent: Bessie, the old dairy cow. As six-year-old Mary Taft reached up to pet the towering beast, T.R. felled it with a single shot from his elephant rifle. The toddler let out a prolonged shriek of horror, and within hours had mysteriously lost both her hearing and sight. Little Mary regained her senses after a few weeks and later grew into an outspoken vegetarian activist.
Three months after Roosevelt’s return from Africa, midterm elections went decisively to the opposing Democrats. The thundering ex-president lashed out at Taft publicly, calling him "a mama's boy" and twice beating him up. Then, Roosevelt vowed to unseat his progeny by running against him for another term in office.
Taft was devastated by the scorn of his mentor and took solace in food. He would grow to a whopping 355 pounds, despite daily rounds of golf. When his appearance finally sickened even himself, Taft retreated to a specially-designed indoor vegetable farm built around the grave of his beloved dairy cow. The chief-in-retreat then baffled the nation by signing over all his powers to the Supreme Court and announcing he would spend the rest of his term gardening.
Roosevelt responded by penning a cheeky song about the failed administration titled, "The Legend of Archie Naff." Destined to become a bluegrass standard--as well as the Cub Scouts’ unofficial anthem--Roosevelt’s return to his musical roots finally pried Taft out of his hermitage. Taft scrambled back into the political spotlight, branding Roosevelt a "freak" and a "dangerous demagogue." Roosevelt beat him up again but failed to secure the GOP nomination. Desperate to stay in the race, T.R. bolted to a third party and stepped up his attacks on his former protege.
In the end, both men would be defeated by a less embattled candidate from the Democratic Party, a former president of Princeton University named Woodrow Wilson. Taft went on to become a chief justice of the United States, the job he had always wanted. Roosevelt retired to his native New York, where on his death bed he composed his own requiem mass. The work went un-produced but may be dusted off at the centenary of his death in 2019 for the soundtrack to the movie version of this very true story.
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