A Slow Start In Tampa: Riding the Raft (With Taft)

by Jason Lee Oakes

I was all set to kick off this blog by discussing music at the Republican National Convention tonight, but Hurricane-to-be Isaac had other plans. Still, the day in “politics and music news” isn’t a complete wash.

As reported by NPR correspondent Mark Memmott, G.E. Smith and his RNC house band went through with their soundcheck yesterday afternoon, treating early birds to a rendition of Cheap Trick’s “I Want You To Want Me.” If they pull out “He’s A Whore” during the convention we’ll know for sure Smith is a Democratic operative.

While Tampa was spared anything close to a direct hit—ominously, New Orleans is now in the crosshairs—the fringes of the storm are expected to dump rain on the city through the remainder of the convention. Therefore—segue alert!—Republicans may be best served to “Get On A Raft With Taft.”

“Get On A Raft With Taft” was written in support of the lawyer and one-time college wrestling champion, William Howard Taft, in his 1908 run for the presidency as the Republican nominee. With lyrics by Harry Kerr and a tune by Abe Holzmann (performed above by Oscar Brand, a recording available on Smithsonian Folkways SFW45051) “Raft” was the biggest hit of the election season—this at a time when made-to-order campaign songs were widely performed and distributed via sheet music. The jaunty mug-raising tone is typical for campaign songs of the era, designed for rousing sing-along sessions. And whether Taft was able to “save the country” from unspecified rising tides, the song makes a good case for the sturdy raft-building technology of the early 20th century, given that the Taft tipped the scales at over 300 pounds.

Turning to the lyrics, the primary targets of “Get On A Raft With Taft” are big business (trust busting was one of Taft’s major platforms), money in politics, and yellow journalism. Taft’s leadership abilities are applauded—he’s helming the raft after all—and his honest, personable disposition is praised. The song also chides his Democratic competitor, William Jennings Bryan, for running his third campaign for president after failing in 1896 and 1900 (“If his legs were gone he’d keep right on a-running just the same”) and for his reported long-windedness (“he’ll talk you deaf and blind”). Lyrics to the song can be found here.

An important side note when it comes to music in political campaigns: Although Bryan was handed his third and final defeat in 1908, his legacy is much greater that Taft’s when it comes to political campaigns. By all reports, Taft wasn’t a fan of communicating with the press—a tendency that helped kill his reelection bid in 1912—but Bryan was on the other far end of the spectrum. As the inventor of the modern day “stump speech” tour, Bryan traveled the country spreading his message far and wide with ADD-busting hour-long speeches and set an important precedent in the process. A hundred years later, the stump campaigner’s emphasis on slick oratory, catchy slogans and songs, and sharp visual self-presentation has morphed into the audio-visual-focused TV ads and appearances that dominate campaigns today.

Back to our man Taft: Given his pro-regulation and pro-immigration views, there is no way Taft would ever be nominated by a Tea-Party-friendly Republican Party in 2012, and probably not even by a centrist Democratic party. But back in 1912 he was a little too far to the right for some Republicans. Former president and mentor Theodore Roosevelt challenged Taft in a third party bid, forming the short-lived Progressive (Bull Moose) Party. In the process, he inadvertently pushed the Republican Party to the political right—a move that would have long-term consequences. With Taft running an uninspired campaign and Roosevelt splitting the Republican vote, both lost handily to Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Taft received the fewest votes of the three.

The Taft Comeback Tour

Earlier this year, Onion A.V. Club writer Jason Heller published a novel imagining what would happen if William Howard Taft traveled through a wrinkle in time and inserted himself into the 2012 campaign, exactly 100 years after his loss to Wilson. Taft 2012 makes its political points by contrasting the former president’s unassuming character and political centrism to the calculation and partisanship of 21st century politics. More to our purposes here, it also serve as the basis for a great fake campaign ad, a pitch-perfect satire of those “uplifting” political ads that are free of content but heavy on schmaltz—right down to the John-Tesh-on-Quaaludes inspirational music.

Moving from cutting political satire to silliness, and also moving from Hurricane Isaac to Isaac Hayes, the following music video uses the latter’s most famous recording as the basis for broad political satire, crossing fat jokes with the “Theme from Shaft.”

In this animation, the false impression is given that Taft had no notable accomplishments while in office or afterwards (he was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1921). But while it may be lazy to take aim at personality quirks and readymade embarrassing moments, it can be pretty damn funny too. Plus you’ve got to give it up for attempting political satire at all when it’s a century removed.

And so Taft is chided here as elsewhere for not really wanting the presidency that much—both his party and his wife urged him to run, and even the official White House website describes his time in office as four uncomfortable years—and for the notorious episode where he got stuck in a White House bathtub. Dislodgement is said to have required the help of four-to-six men (accounts vary) and a gallon of butter. Thus, his lasting legacy to the presidency may be the extra large tub that was installed thereafter. That, and his work with the pioneering electronic music group Taft Punk.

LATER THIS WEEK: Music at the Republican National Convention.