Taft’s visit preceded disaster for GOP

Posted July 25, 2010, at 6:55 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:26 a.m.

President William Howard Taft’s 10-day journey up and down the Maine coast in July of 1910 on the presidential yacht USS Mayflower should have yielded important news for the small army of reporters following him. But the portly President avoided hot political subjects such as tariffs during several speeches in Bangor and elsewhere. While reporters hung expectantly on his every word, Taft said little, smiling benevolently and praising the state and its people. Even the salty Maine air, which he compared to “champagne in a prohibition state,” received his approval.

Reporters from many of the New York and Boston papers, as well as the Maine dailies and the wire services scraped for copy. All these influential ink slingers, however, had little to report except the weather and the president’s social calendar. If all else failed, they related events connected to Taft’s vast bulk. At 5 feet 11 inches, “the big President” was said to weigh well over 300 pounds.

At Eastport on Tuesday, July 19, the first stop after leaving his “summer white house” in Beverly, Mass., the President spoke in front of the Peavey Library on Water Street. He “did not touch on politics” other than to question why Maine created so much bother by holding its elections for state officials in September and not in November like most other states. Of course, back then the saying was, “As Maine goes, so goes the nation.” The Republicans were facing some tough challenges in the mid-term elections of 1910, and if Maine voted Democrats into office, it wouldn’t bode well for November or for Taft’s own re-election attempt in 1912.

The Mayflower arrived at Bar Harbor on Wednesday afternoon where the President played golf at the Kebo Valley Club House course. That’s where his immense girth emerged as a subject of prime interest. “[At the landing dock] the President looked rather askance at the long stretch of inclined pier above him, which he was compelled to climb and then at his more than 300 pounds…. just to show that it was as safe as a church, Mayor Bunker, who is a 300-pounder himself, came up the incline. The President followed at a brisk pace that made the others hurry to keep up with him,” reported the Bangor Daily News.

No speech was planned at Bar Harbor. Instead, the president spent his time with rich summer people. Some of the year-round folks, however, were upset they had been left out of the festivities. At the urging of J.P. Bass, who owned the Bangor Daily Commercial as well as a summer home in Bar Harbor, Taft agreed to talk briefly on the Village Green. “There was not a suggestion of politics in his speech,” the Bangor Daily News reported dutifully.

After visiting more wealthy summer people at Seal Harbor and Northeast Harbor, the presidential party crossed the bay and took the train from Mount Desert Ferry for Bangor on Saturday morning for a short visit. First on the agenda for “the big President” was a 40-minute auto tour around the Queen City in a 40 h.p. White Steamer followed by 10 other autos full of dignitaries and newsmen.

The Bangor Motor Co. had supplied the automobiles, along with another excuse for an obesity joke: “In case the weighty President should bust a tire,” his car was supplied with “demountable rims” so that it would only take “two minutes” to change a flat, the Bangor Daily News assured readers.

Thousands of people jammed Main Street and crowded the hill up to the Unitarian Church and beyond to hear Taft give his brief speech on the portico of the Bangor House, where his mentor, President Theodore Roosevelt, had spoken a few years before. The president continued to disarm his listeners with “the famous Taft smile,” saying, as usual, little of significance. He named a list of great Maine political leaders that any schoolchild could recite, and he suggested there was money to be made in Aroostook potatoes.

Inside the venerable hotel he had the usual lunch offered to visiting dignitaries — Penobscot River salmon, green peas and some fancy side dishes. “Several Maine papers have intimated that the subject of politics was mentioned, but it was not,” confided the Bangor Daily News.

Among the dignitaries who had been following the president about was Sen. Eugene Hale. The powerful Republican congressman from Ellsworth had decided not to run for office again, creating a dilemma for his party. At 2:30 p.m. “the big President” was back on the train on his way to the Hale estate, The Pines, for the rest of Saturday and Sunday morning. By now it was noted he was limping from a sprained ankle acquired while playing golf at Bar Harbor. There was no speculation, however, as to the role his great weight may have played in this mishap.

During a short speech late that afternoon, Taft praised Ellsworth’s picturesque elm trees and mentioned other inconsequential matters. The next morning the President went to church and visited Mrs. Hale’s camp at Branch Pond before boarding the Mayflower back at Mount Desert Ferry for a run out to Islesboro and then to Rockport the next day. For a few hours that night, the captain had to anchor at the mouth of Penobscot Bay because of the thick fog.

Rockland, the home of ex-Gov. William T. Cobb, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, was the destination for Tuesday morning, July 26. “Maine is seething with politics just now,” commented the Bangor Daily News. In another short speech, the President “drifted close to politics,” but didn’t quite make it. He spoke from the automobile in which he had taken a 50-minute tour of the city. Instead of addressing political issues, he urged Rockland to get some Panama Canal cement contracts to benefit its lime industry.

Then it was on to Biddeford Pool, where his sister-in-law had a summer place. At this exclusive summer colony, yet another event reflecting the President’s weight made the news. “Landing in the Mayflower’s launch on a little float here today the President was met by a committee. The crowd weighted the float down to such an extent that it began to go under when the President stepped aboard and his feet got quite wet,” the Bangor Daily News reported. This event received more coverage in the Bangor paper than the President’s short talk at the Abenaki Club.

In reality, President Taft had been campaigning the whole trip despite the lack of headline fodder. A shrewd reporter summed up the situation back in Eastport: “The election here is to be held this year on September 12 and the Republican leaders who have a hard campaign on their hands are hopeful that Mr. Taft’s presence in the State and his speeches here…may have a good moral effect.”

Taft’s visit had little “moral effect,” however. Maine’s election was a disaster for Republicans. That September, the Pine Tree State elected its first Democratic governor and its first Democrats to the U.S. House since 1880, as well as the first Democratic Legislature since the 1850s. The Legislature in turn chose the first Maine Democrat in the U.S. Senate since 1857. The next year, the new governor appointed another Maine Democrat to the U.S. Senate when the state’s remaining Republican senator, William P. Frye, died in office. These momentous events are according to historians Edward O. Schriver and Stanley R. Howe in “Maine: The Pine Tree State from Prehistory to the Present.”

An illustrated collection of Wayne E. Reilly’s columns titled “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire” is available at bookstores. Comments about this column may be sent to him at wreilly.bdn@gmail.com.

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