Science fiction doesn’t often do politics. There’s no shortage of sf writers willing to explore ideology or, more frequently, shove their personal ideology down a reader’s throat in the crudest way imaginable, but engagement with the real way that societies make policy decisions is not often the focus of interest[i]. However, Jason Heller’s debut novel, Taft 2012, is a sf&f book with a politician on the cover and a blurb on the back that makes clear that the story is concerned with an American presidential election campaign.
In Taft 2012 one-term US President William Howard Taft disappears on the day that Woodrow Wilson, who had just defeated Taft in the 1912 election, is to be inaugurated. One hundred years later, in a way that is never explained and doesn’t need to be, Taft emerges from the earth of the Rose Garden lawn during a presidential press conference and is immediately shot in the leg by the Secret Service. This miracle rebirth makes him a sensation so, as Taft attempts to come to terms with the 21st Century, he finds himself dragged back into the political turmoil of an election year and ends up campaigning again for the one post he never really wanted, US President.
The real Taft, who didn’t disappear in 1912, was an interesting character, he is best remembered for being the fat president with the walrus moustache who once got wedged in the White House bath and had to be levered out but Taft was a remarkable man who lived an extraordinary life. He graduated second in his law class from Yale, became a respected judge, an enlightened governor of the Philippines, a peace-making Secretary of War, President and, later, Chief Justice. But he is generally reckoned to have been a failure as President, over-shadowed by his more glamorous predecessor, Teddy Roosevelt, and by his successor, Woodrow Wilson, who had victory in World War One and the creation of the League of Nations on his CV. Taft’s constant tacking away from conflict and his pursuit of compromise meant he first infuriated and then alienated his key supporters. Roosevelt tried to return and unseat Taft as Republican candidate for the 1912 election and, when that attempt failed, Roosevelt stood as a third-party candidate, condemning Taft to the worst defeat ever suffered by an incumbent president.
All this makes Taft an unusual choice for a protagonist, but a smart one. Heller uses Taft’s unique characteristics to cast light on the current American political situation.
This idealised Taft returns to continue his battles against big business. Taft’s presidency was marked by an acceleration of Roosevelt’s campaign against trusts – including notable battles against US Steel and the railroad barons. In Taft 2012 his fight is against the food conglomerates who profit by selling adulterated, fattening foods. Heller dwells on Taft’s weight, I suppose it’s unavoidable, but he does it to make the personal political and uses his protagonist’s size to discuss the way the food industry has addicted a nation (a world) to sugar and fat. Taft’s granddaughter Rachel is in Congress as an independent and is working on a bill to increase standards in food. Taft takes up her fight.
The eating of food plays a key role in Taft 2012. There are memorably gross restaurant visits – including one to a high-concept joint called Atomiser (Chapter 16) which features a chef who, in a Heston-Blumenthal-gone-bad way, serves repackaged fast food as high-end dining and Heller takes the chance to make powerful points about how modern society has lost contact with the stuff we eat. The book’s villain, giant agri-conglomerate Fulsom Foods, is perhaps a little too one-dimensionally wicked to be entirely convincing, but it serve its purpose and Heller at least has the wit to make clear that food is only one symptom of a wider malady.
“If there is a problem with America today – as I see it – it is that we look for self-worth in consumption, rather than in the pursuit of personal achievement. I may seem a hypocrite for pointing such a finger, for I have obviously engaged in quite a bit of overconsumption myself! Nonetheless, it is true, we cannot fill the void in our souls by stuffing ourselves with physical comfort; we can only fill it by striving to achieve excellence.” (240)
Heller also uses Taft, who was a president during the prohibition era but who (after his time in office) became a vocal opponent of the Eighteenth Amendment, to make smart points about the war on drugs.
Taft 2012 also takes a crack at the way in which the media and politics interact in a modern society. The real Taft was unwilling and constitutionally unable to build relationships with the press and Heller takes the opportunity to highlight how things have become worse in the last one hundred years. There’s a strong passage in which Taft makes his first appearance in a television studio that highlights the artificiality of conducting politics through the adversarial method favoured by media interviewers and how the distance between politicians and the public has damaged political debate.
“What was this unholy, lopsided manner of addressing people that had evolved since his day? No wonder Americans had devolved into such a vicious, petty, sarcastic lot. They no longer had to look each other in the eye” (97)
Through the device of the Taft Party, a diverse range of malcontents who cut out aspects of Taft’s past life and the paste onto him their narrow concerns, Heller does a great job of expressing the way in which politicians become prisoners of the expectations of their constituencies. There’s an unacknowledged irony here, though, in that Heller is happy to present the activists who cling to Taft and presume to know him better than he knows himself as oddballs but that is, of course, what Heller is doing in this book. Without suggesting that Heller is deliberately misrepresenting his subject, he has clearly latched on to a number of Taft’s characteristics that he finds admirable and uses them to tackle issues that concern him about the conduct of politics in modern America.
Heller’s Taft is, first of all, a reluctant politician. As President he publicly confessed that he disliked the job and was ill-suited to it. He is presented as a man who stumbled into power and who did not enjoy its exercise. This marks Taft as an outsider, someone who doesn’t really belong to the despised “political class”. The perfect American politician is often deemed to be the one that least seeks political advancement and Taft surely comes close to that ideal.
Second, Heller’s Taft instinctively seeks compromise, avoiding conflicts and wanting to be liked by everyone. The American constitution entrenches compromise and has given rise to a political culture that equates bi-partisanship with common sense. That most American political philosopher, John Rawls, takes the notion to the extreme, demanding that those who take part in his perfected democracy abandon their own personal preferences when they enter political deliberation – essentially internalising bi-partisanship. Underlying all this is a belief that social problems can be solved if people of goodwill can come together and that only ideology and narrow self-interest act as barriers to (something like) a rational utopia.
Finally, there is Taft’s appeal to a better America that has been lost, or buried, beneath the Twentieth Century.
“Don’t forget who you are. Don’t forget where you come from. Where we come from. That American still exists. It’s under here, underneath all this… difficulty. Remember what made this a great nation…” (203)
Over the course of 100 years America rose from a position as an emerging regional power to become a nation of unparalleled financial, cultural and military resources able to exercise influence in every corner of the globe. There have been great winners in this wild ride, but there have also been those who found the journey traumatic. America’s ideological image of its best self remains a folksy one of small towns and plain-speaking common sense, a plucky underdog who challenges tyrants rather than behaves like one. That images often clashes with the true nature of life in the world’s only superpower and this clash has damaging psychological effects. Taft offers a way back to a simpler time.
I’m not sure if I find any of Taft’s virtues convincing answers to the problem of the Twenty-First Century.
I don’t accept that political ambition is necessarily the obstacle to being a good leader, as Heller suggests. Heller has Taft urge Americans to strive to achieve excellence. Why should this apply to the “doctor or lawyer or taxicab driver… an excellent mother … an excellent golfer” (240) but immediately exclude from consideration from high office anyone who seeks to be an excellent politician? We live in complicated societies that create complex problems and they require us devise intricate solutions – I would rather have politicians who were motivated to learn how to address these problems than an amateur who wanders in, half-cocked.
Heller has Taft state:
“No politician is his own man, nor should he be. He should be an implement of the people he represents.” (212)
I don’t accept this at all. Politicians should not be mere mechanical aggregators of the average will of their electorate. First, it is an impossible demand. In America a politician may represent millions of constituents with almost as many conflicting viewpoints on a vast array of issues that they rank with different degrees of importance. How could a politician be an implement of all these people? Second, why would we want politicians that only ever act at our direction. One of the purposes of modern political system is a division of labour, we elect representatives (and pay civil servants) to spend time doing the detailed work of directing a state because we want to spend our time on other things. And, finally, it seems entirely wrong that we should demand that politicians deny their own conscience, if we are not electing marionettes then we are surely electing people because we want them to exercise their judgement.
Nor have I ever found the American obsession with bi-partisanship convincing. It seems to me that that the Rawlsian ideal of political actors who abandon their interests in pursuit of agreement is, in fact, a denial of the purpose of politics, which is not to abolish conflict but to manage it. It ignores the fact that political disagreement does not always admit to technocratic problem-solving and that a position between two extremes does not always yield a policy that is either effective or satisfactory to the majority. But, more crucially, it denies the depth of some political interest – the fact that some groups need to be unreasonable in the pursuit of their interests to get their voices heard. Would the cause of the enfranchisement of women or civil rights been advanced by the kind of relentless bi-partisanship Heller has Taft embody?
Nor do I believe that the old America that Heller’s Taft invokes is really simply buried and waiting to be uncovered. Taft’s America existed before the enfranchisement of women, before the sufferings of the Great Depression and the innovations of the New Deal, before the sacrifices of two world wars created America the superpower, before the boom of the fifties, before the struggle for Civil Rights, before the political disillusionment of Vietnam and Watergate, the shock of the oil crisis and the massive Hispanic immigration that has transformed many parts of America. Taft 2012 isn’t just making an appeal for the rediscovery of an old America but also to an old form of America conservatism. But that was conservatism before the Republican Party turned from the progressive force of Taft’s era into today’s anti-intellectual, anti-science mob that places more emphasis on ideological purity than on winning elections. Zealotry based on religion and political and economic ideology has created sharply defined and bitter divisions that will not easily bridged even with appeals to an idealised past and an (unlikely) endless supply of goodwill.
Institutions may have persisted, but it is difficult to see a meaningful sense in which Taft’s America still exists.
I thoroughly enjoying Taft 2012, it is well written, frequently funny and sharply observed. I think Heller’s Taft is a wonderful, engaging, likeable character – I’m sure most reviewers won’t be able to resist calling him well-rounded and larger-than-life and I don’t see why I should deny myself. Heller’s Taft is beguiling and admirable and his story is sensitively told. But I found myself butting again and again against the essential conservatism of this book. Still, there was one passage in the peroration that forms the novel’s climax where I was able to nod along in total agreement.
“I have discovered something about heroic struggles that many would-be heroes never grasp: acts of greatness are not singular acts. They are made up of many small acts that, taken one at a time over long years, do not look terribly heroic at all.” (241)
This seems to me to be an excellent description of how politics works and it is a truth that is too often missed in works that mistake ideology for politics.
[i] There are, of course, notable exceptions (Kim Stanley Robinson springs immediately to mind) but they are exceptions.