Remarks to the Lotos Club in New York City
Mr. President and Gentlemen of the Lotos Club: The legend of the lotus eaters was that if they partook of the fruit of the lotus tree, they forgot what had happened in their country and were left in a state of philosophic calm in which they had no desire to return to it.
I do not know what was in the mind of your distinguished Invitation Committee when I was asked to attend this banquet. They came to me before the election. At first I hesitated to accept lest, when the dinner came, by the election I should be shorn of interest as a guest, and be changed from an active and virile participant in the day's doings of the Nation to merely a dissolving view.
I knew that generally on an occasion of this sort the motive of the diners was to have a guest whose society should bring them more closely into contact with the great present and future, and not be merely a reminder of what has been. But after further consideration, I saw in the name of your club the possibility that you were not merely cold, selfish seekers after pleasures of your own, and that perhaps you were organized to furnish consolation to those who mourn, oblivion to those who would forget, an opportunity for a swan song to those about to disappear.
This thought, prompted by the coming, as one of your committee, of the gentleman who knows everything in the world that has happened and is going to happen, and especially that which is going to happen, by reason of his control of the Associated Press, much diminished my confidence in the victory that was to come on Election Day. I concluded that it was just as well to cast an anchor to the windward and accept as much real condolence as I could gather in such a hospitable presence as this, and therefore, my friends, I accepted your invitation and am here.
You have given me the toast of "The President," and I take this toast not merely as one of respect to the office and indicative of your love of country and as typical of your loyalty, but I assume for the purposes of tonight that a discussion of the office which I have held and in which I have rejoiced and suffered will not be inappropriate.
It is said that the office of President is the most powerful in the world, because under the Constitution its occupant really can exercise more discretion than an Emperor or King exercises in any of the Governments of modern Europe.
I am not disposed to question this as a matter of reasoning from the actual power given the President in the Constitutional division of governmental functions but I am bound to say that the consciousness of such power is rarely, if ever, present in the mind of the ordinary individual acting as President, because what chiefly stares him in the face in carrying out any plan of his is the limitation upon the power and not its extent.
Of course, there are happy individuals who are able entirely to ignore those limitations both in mind and practice, and as to them the result may be different. But to one whose training and profession is subordinate to law, the intoxication of power rapidly sobers off in the knowledge of its restrictions and under a prompt reminder of an ever-present and not always considerate press, as well as by the kindly suggestions that not infrequently come from that hall of Congress in which impeachments are intimated and that smaller chamber in which they are tried.
In these days of progress, reform, uplift, and improvement, a man does not show himself abreast of the age unless he has some changes to suggest. It is the recommended change that marks his being up to date. It may be a change only for the sake of change, but it is responsive to a public demand, and therefore let's propose it.
It is contrary to my own love for the dear old Constitution to suggest any alteration in its terms, lest it be regarded as a reflection upon, or a criticism of that which has been put to the sacred use for 125 years of maintaining liberty regulated by law, and the guarantee of the rights of the minority and the individual under the rule of the majority.
But yielding to the modern habit, and just to show that though I am a conservative I am not a reactionary or a trilobite, I venture the suggestion that it would aid the efficiency of the executive and centre his energy and attention and that of his subordinates in the latter part of his Administration upon what is a purely disinterested public service if he were made ineligible after serving one term of six years either to a succeeding or a non-consecutive term.
I am a little specific in this matter because it seems necessary to be so in order to be understood. I don't care how unambitious or modest a President is. I don't care how determined he is that he himself will not secure his renomination (and there are very few indeed who go to that extent) still his subordinates equally interested with him in his re-election will, whenever they have the opportunity, exert their influence and divide their time between the public service and the effort to secure their chief's renomination and re-election.
It is difficult to prevent the whole Administration from losing a part of its effectiveness for the public good by this diversion to political effort for at least a year of the four of each Administration. Were this made impossible by law I can see no reason why the energy of the President and that of all his subordinates might not be directed rather to making a great record of efficiency in the first and only term than in seeking a second term for that purpose.
Four years is rather a short time in which to work out great governmental policies. Six years is better.
Another suggestion I would make is that legislative steps be taken, for there is nothing in the Constitution to forbid it, bringing more closely together the operations of the executive and legislative branches. The studied effort in which we maintain these branches rigidly separate is I think, a mistake.
I would not add any more actual power to the Executive in legislative matters, nor would I give the legislative any more actual power in executive matters. The veto on the one hand and the confirmation of appointments and the ratification of treaties on the other I would not change. But it does seem to me that they need not be at arm's length, as they now are under our present system.
It has been proposed twice in our history after the fullest consideration by some of the wisest statesmen we have ever had, to pass a law giving to each department head a set in the Senate and in the House, and a right to enter into either of the National legislative bodies.
This would keep Congress much better informed as to the actual conditions in the executive departments. It would keep the department heads on the qui vive with reference to their knowledge of their own departments and their ability to answer appropriate questions in respect to them. It would necessitate the appointment to the Cabinet of men used to debate and to defend their positions, and it would offer an opportunity for the public to judge of the Executive and his Government much more justly and much more quickly than under our present system.
The ignorance that Congress at times has of what is actually going on in the executive departments and the fact that hours of debate and pages of The Congressional Record might be avoided by the answer to a single question by a competent Cabinet officer on the floor of either house is frequently brought sharply to the attention of competent observers.
I think, too, it might perhaps promote the amenities between the two branches if this system were introduced. The rules of the two houses, as I am advised, forbid the use of abusive language by one member against another, and by a member of one house against the other house or its members. A somewhat close examination of the rules, however, of both houses does not show that there is any limitation upon the parliamentary character of the language which may be directed against the President.
As to him, the members pursue their own sweet will and that sometimes leads them into language and epithetical description of the Chief Executive that could hardly be called complimentary. If members of the Cabinet were allowed the floor, their very presence would suggest in the possibility of reply moderation in discussing the Administration, which does not now at all times prevail.
The strongest reason for advocating this change, however, is that the influence that the Executive shall have in shaping legislation shall be more in harmony with the responsibility that the people hold him to in respect to it. He is the head of the party that elected him, and as such, if Congress is controlled by the same political party, as it generally is, he is looked to to shape the Congressional policy and to secure the passage of the statutes which the party platform has promised. Now, with such a burden on him, he ought to have a greater means of bringing about what he wishes in the character of the legislation to be considered by Congress, and greater powers of persuasion to secure the adoption of such legislation than those which the mere right to send messages and the mere opportunity of personal congratulation with leading members of the House and Senate give him.
I doubt not that the presence of able Cabinet officers on the floor of each house would give greater harmony of play for the conduct of public business in both houses, and would secure much more valuable legislation in accordance with party plans than we have now. On the other hand, the system would enable Congress to come closer to the Executive, and pry more effectively into each act and compel a disclosure of the reasons justifying it immediately at the time of the act, and keep the public more quickly advised by the direct questions of hostile critics which must be answered, of the progress of business under Executive auspices.
Of course this is not the complete English system, because it does not give to the Cabinet the power to lead and control legislative action, as the British Government may in Parliament. But it combines so much of that which is valuable, and as it can be done by a mere act of Congress, I think it ought to be tried.
One of the results of my observation in the Presidency is that the position is not a place to be enjoyed by a sensitive man. Laurence Sterne said that "The Lord tempers the wind to the shorn lamb." The experience in the Presidency toughens the hide of the occupant so as to enable him to resist the strings of criticism directed against him from the time he takes office until he lays it down.
I don't know that this evil has been any greater in this administration than in a previous administration. All I know is that it was my first experience and that it seemed to me as if I had been more greatly tried than most Presidents by such methods.
The result in some respects is unfortunate in that after one or two efforts to meet the unfounded accusations, despair in the matter leads to indifference toward both just and unjust criticism. This condition helps the comfort of the patient, but I doubt if it makes him a better President.
Of course the reassuring formula that history will right one and will give one his just meed of praise is consolatory, but it is not altogether satisfactory, because the thought suggests itself that the time for remedying the injustice may be postponed until one is gathered to his fathers, and when he is not then particularly interested in earthly history or mundane affairs.
I think the period for successful muckraking is gradually drawing to a close. I hope so. The evil of the cruel injustice that has been done to many public men in this regard will certainly show itself in the future, and we must consider that the ebullition in muckraking literature is only one of the temporary excesses of the times, which is curing itself by tiring those whose patronage formed the motive for its beginning and rise.
In so far as those criticisms are just, of course they ought not to be avoided. In so far as they are based on facts, whether they are just or unjust, they must be taken at their value upon the consideration of the facts. But the query arises in respect to those criticisms and attacks that are made without the slightest reference to the facts, and merely for the purpose of invoking popular opposition and distrust, and with the hope that by constant repetition they can escape any possible refutation.
The Presidency is a great office to hold. It is a great honor, and it is surrounded with much that makes it full of pleasure and enjoyment for the occupant in spite of its heavy responsibilities and the shining mark that it presents for misrepresentation and false attack.
I consider that the President of the United States is well paid. The salary by no means measures the contribution to his means of living which the generosity of Congress has afforded, and unless it is the policy of Congress to enable him in his four years to save enough money to live in adequate dignity and comfort thereafter, then the salary is all that it ought to be.
Of course, the great and really the only lasting satisfaction that one can have in the administration of the great office of President is the thought that one has done something permanently useful to his fellow-countrymen. The mere enjoyment of the tinsel of office is ephemeral, and unless one can fix one's memory on real progress made through the exercise of Presidential power, there is little real pleasure in the contemplation of the holding of that or any other office, however great its power or dignity or high its position in the minds of men.
I beg you to believe that in spite of the very emphatic verdict by which I leave the office I cherish only the deepest gratitude to the American people for having given me the honor of having held the office, and I sincerely hope, in looking back over what has been done, that there is enough of progress made to warrant me in the belief that real good has been accomplished even though I regret that it has not been greater.
My chief regret is my failure to secure from the Senate the ratification of the general arbitration treaties with France and Great Britain. I am sure they would have been great steps toward general world peace. What has actually been done I hope has helped the cause of peace, but ratification would have been a concrete and substantial step. I do not despair of ultimate success. We must hope and work on.
The sustained mental work in the Presidential office is not, I think, so great as is generally supposed. The nervous strain is greater. As it should be, the President has a great many assistants to furnish him data and actually to prepare his letters and his official communications. If he is careful, of course, he corrects and changes these enough to put his own personality into them. His time is very much taken up with social functions, state and otherwise. This is inevitable with the affairs of state, and his actual time for real hard intellectual work is limited. That part of his time which is taken up with the smaller patronage of the office, that is, I mean, the local patronage, the Postmasters and Collectors, is, in my judgment, wasted and ought to be removed by putting all the local offices in the classified civil service system, so that it shall be automatic in its operation and the President may not be bothered, and the Congressmen and Senators may not be bothered with that which is supposed to aide politically, but which in the end always operates as a burden to the person upon whom its use is thrust.
I observe that the question of how receptions are to be accorded to those who have business at the White House is now under consideration, and I have been considerably amused at the suggestion that it would be possible to do the public business in the presence of everybody, so that all who are interested might draw near to the Executive Office and stand and see and hear the communications from those who enjoy appointed consultations with the head of the Nation.
This matter is always the subject of consideration at the beginning of each Administration, and it always settled down to an arrangement which satisfied few people but which allows those who have the most important business generally to have the easiest and longest access to the President. A President has just so much time to see people, and if the number of people is very great, as it always is at the beginning of an Administration, the amount of time he can give to each is very limited. No matter what is done, it will be certain that somebody's toes are stepped on, and when I am asked what is the proper way of arranging receptions of people under conditions which exist, I am forced to tell the story of the gentleman who lived on "Sascatchequarie" Creek. He was asked how he applied the name of the creek and he said. "Some spells it one way and some spells it another, but in my judgment there are no correct ways of spelling it."
And now, my friends, I come to the final question which is of immediate moment to me, and in respect to which I observe some discussion and comment and suggestion in the press of the day. "What are we to do with our ex-Presidents?"
I am not sure, Dr. Osler's method of dealing with elderly men would not properly, usefully apply to the treatment of ex-Presidents. The proper and scientific administration of a dose of chloroform or of the fruit of the lotus tree and the reduction of the flesh of the thus quietly departed to ashes in a funeral pyre to satisfy the wishes of the friends and the families might make a fitting end to the life of one who has held the highest office and at the same time would secure the country from the troublesome fear that the occupant could ever come back.
His record would have been made by one term, and his demise in the honorable ceremony that I have suggested would relieve the country from the burden of thinking how he is to support himself and his family, would fix his place in history and enable the public to pass on to new men and new measures. I commend this method for consideration.
I observe that our friend, Mr. Bryan, proposes another method of disposing of our ex-Presidents. Mr. Bryan has not had exactly the experience of being a President. He has been a "near President" for three times, and possibly that qualifies him as an expert to speak of what we ought to do with our ex-Presidents. He has been very vigorous in this campaign in helping to make me an ex-President, and if I have followed with accuracy his public declarations and his private opinions he is anxious to perform the office of making my successor an ex-President after one term.
As a Warwick and as a maker of ex-Presidents, I think we should give great and respectful consideration to his suggestion. Instead of ending the ex-Presidential life by chloroform or lotus eating, he proposed that it should expire under the anaesthetic effect of the debates of the Senate. He proposes that ex-Presidents should be confined to the business of sitting in the Senate and listening to the discussions in that body. We may assume that he proposes that the ex-Presidents shall share the burden of the Vice President as he listens to the soliloquies which the various members of that body pour into the Congressional Record while the remainder of the Senators are engaged in more entertaining and less somnolent occupation.
The ex-Presidents are to have seats in the Senate and join in the discussion but not to vote. Why Mr. Bryan should think it necessary to add to the discussion in the Senate the lucubrations of ex-Presidents, I am in a loss to say. I can not conceive of any reform in the Senate which does not lead to a limit in their debate.
For many reasons, I object to Mr. Bryan's disposition of ex-Presidents. If I must go and disappear into oblivion, I prefer to go by the chloroform or lotus method. It's pleasanter, and it's less drawn out.
But, my friends, I have occupied your time too long in my cursory remarks, the subject of which at times may have seemed too sober and grave for lotos eaters, but as the office of the Presidency is still in my keeping, and as the thought of parting with it is perhaps the most prominent one that figures in my mind, I have ventured to discuss it in accents both grave and gay. I wish to express deep gratitude to you for the honor which you have done me in making me your guest to-night, and I close with a sentiment and a toast to which I most sincerely and cordially ask your unanimous acclaim.
"Health and success to the able, distinguished, and patriotic gentleman who is to be "The next President of the United States!"
William Howard Taft, Remarks to the Lotos Club in New York City Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/345975