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Interview: Jason Heller, Author of Taft 2012: A Novel

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Just when it may seem like every imaginable story has been written about the 2012 presidential race along comes the fascinating, hilarious novel Taft 2012 which injects needed humor into what has been a pretty depressing campaign thus far.As I talk about with the author in the interview that follows, the timing of this book couldn’t be better not only because the campaign needs some new angles but also because Republicans have been struggling for months with the question of who to nominate since few seem to be in love with Mitt Romney.

Enter from stage left, or, maybe I should say stage right (since he was a Republican) William Howard Taft, president from 1909–1913.Taft has, for reasons not entirely clear, never actually died, and he wakes up in 2012 to a world that has changed enormously since he served in office almost 100 years ago.

Author Jason HellerJason Heller, in his debut novel, takes the reader on a fun ride through contemporary life and politics while also taking some pokes at Taft, both the nation’s largest president and the last to wear a mustache. As for why Heller chose Taft as the former president to build this literary ride on, I’ll let him explain that in the interview.

I heard about this book during this piece on NPR and decided on the spot I wanted to read the book and interview its author.

If you want to read a fun book check this out — you’ll thank me later. It’s especially enjoyable if you like books about politics that have a sense of humor. It’s fun political satire.

I wanted to include a few excerpts from the book. I love that Heller has a reporter cut to the quick at one point asking a question that would surely come up if Taft really was found alive near the White House lawn while Obama was president.

“Reporter: Senator, Mr. Taft will also be eligible to receive top medical care at VA hospitals. Doesn’t it set a bad example to allow him the same treatment as our veterans when his extreme obesity make him a clear insurance risk? Will the First Lady’s anti-obesity campaign be addressing the matter of President Taft’s physical fitness?”

Heller has fun with the language of politicians — this comment reminded me of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s classic line about “known unknowns”. Heller has James Mackler, the director of national intelligence, on a television show, say the government is convinced the Taft found in 2012 must be the real one because he knows his presidential ID. This prompts this exchange

(TV Host) Pauline Craig: “He knew it, I see. And you’re more prepared to accept the idea of a total violation of the laws of nature than the idea that a government secret could have leaked.

Mackler: “There are secrets, and then there are secrets, and then, beyond those, there are the secrets so secret they keep secrets from each other. I don’t know how to explain his appearance after a hundred years, but I do know as an absolute certainty that the man could not know that code unless he used to sit in in the Oval Office.”

One final excerpt before we get to the interview — I love that Heller has, as a major character, a person who just happens to be the foremost scholar of Taft, which as they talk about in this excerpt is, normally, not a big deal:.

Craig: Well, if any human was going to hibernate I guess it makes sense that it would be one who looks like a bear. Our final guest is preeminent Taft historican Susan Weschler of American University. Professor Weschler, you’ve been working on a biography of President Taft for years. Would you say you know him better than anyone else living today does?

Susan: Uh, thank you, Pauline, that’s very kind. I suppose that’s true. But being the foremost authority on Taft is like being the foremost authority on — on Luxembourg.

Pauline: I don’t follow you.

Susan: “Luxembourg is a tiny little nation surrounded by Germany, Belgium, and France. It’s overshadowed by its more powerful, more popular neighbors, so people never give it any thought. Taft is like that. His term was sandwiched right in between Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, two of the most exalted presidents we’ve ever had.

Pauline: “I’ve seen Taft, Professor, the pictures as well as the man on the White House lawn Monday. And I have to tell you, he’s no tiny little Luxembourg. Though I’m sure he does know about sandwiches.

Susan: Pauline, if you invited me onto your show just to crack fat jokes —

Pauline: Settle down, Professor, just a little humor to break the tension.

Anyway Taft eventually goes on this show himself — and that itself is a hoot — as is the fact that instead of the Tea Party a group of supporters forms their own new party, the Taft Party… and hilarity ensues especially when different supporters are convinced they know what Taft would truly say or think about certain positions, often being quite wrong in their speculation.

And with that let’s go to my own interview with the creator of Taft 2012:

How did you come up with the idea for this novel?

My editor, the great Stephen Segal, originally came up with the premise for Taft 2012. From there, we fleshed it out. The more I got to know about Taft (the man), the more Taft (the book) began to take shape. As it turned out, even our least celebrated presidents have intriguing stories in them — even when I horribly mutate their histories like I did with Taft.

How would you sum up what this book is about?

On the surface, it’s about William Howard Taft disappearing at the end of his first term in 1913 — and reappearing, Rip Van Winkle-like, in 2011, just in time to jump into the current presidential race. Underneath that admittedly ridiculous premise, it’s a story of a man out of time who’s trying to fit into our crazy, hyper-accelerated culture — and how his century-old values are actually more progressive, in many ways, than what we believe today.

Why did you choose Taft as the person to return to the political landscape? Was it partly because he’s less well known than most presidential candidates?

As I mentioned, it was my editor’s idea to use Taft. The more I got to know Taft (through research, of course), the more I began to love him. It definitely helped that he’s one of our lesser known presidents — that gave me a lot more leeway to exercise artistic license without raising too many immediate red flags.

Then again, I’m sure there’s some Taft historian out there who has some major issues with my portrayal of the man! But this is satire, so I don’t feel too guilty. One thing that didn’t require much embellishment, though, was the fact that Taft faced many of the same issues in his day (unease about taxation, the size of government, environmental conservation, even food regulation) that we face today, and that he winds up wrestling with in my book.

Pretty much all I know about Taft before reading this book was that there’s an infamous chair at the Mission Inn in Riverside, CA that was specially built just for Taft due to his girth. You can see it here. Speaking of his size, did you find yourself having to be careful not to make too much of his size, since it’d be easy to tell too many jokes on that topic?  Also, ironic or coincidental that this “big boy” as he’s code-named returns at a time when the nation is having its own problem with obesity?

I came across that piece of trivia about Taft’s chair in Riverside while researching the book! It’s true, Taft was a large man. I was very, very worried about Taft 2012 becoming a collection of fat jokes, though. Not only would that have been offensive, it would have missed a great opportunity: to have Taft return to life in our day and confront the escalating issues of obesity and the perils of corporate agriculture. At the same time, I couldn’t help but poke a little fun at his girth — I think even the most casual Taft fan would have been let down if I hadn’t.

How did you go about researching this book? What were you surprised to learn? I was surprised to learn, for example, that he was the last president to have a mustache.

There are surprisingly (or perhaps understandably) few biographies written about Taft. I read every one I could get my hands on. As it turns out, all kinds of cool Taft trivia abounds. Not only was he the last president to sport facial hair, he was the first president to throw out a pitch at a major-league baseball game. He was president when the Titanic went down, and he lost his best friend and closest advisor (Archibald Butt) in the disaster. The biggest fact about Taft that most people overlook, however, is his unique status among U.S. presidents: the only one to have later become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, an honor that Taft always aspired to, far more than he ever wanted to be president.

How recently did you finish this book? Is it just good luck on your part that Taft returns at a time when there is no clear likeable frontrunner challenging Obama? That has got to be kind of a funny fortunate turn of events, right? Or did you suspect or hope that might happen. What would Taft make of Romney?

I finished the book in the summer of 2011, just a couple months before the story itself starts. It was tricky; I had no way of predicting the particulars of the presidential race that was about to blow up, yet I had to lampoon it. Who could have foreseen something as crazy as, say, Hermain Cain? Truth is stranger than satire. As for Romney: Taft is not a fan of the man. In fact, Taft (okay, really it’s me) is currently blogging, tweeting, and posting on Facebook as he reacts to the unfolding events of the 2012 presidential race. To Taft, all four current GOP contenders have betrayed the progressive ideals of the GOP circa 1912. That said, he’s hoping to beat the pants off Obama, as well — although he not-so-secretly holds a deep respect for him.

You appear to try hard to keep things historically accurate, as far as I can tell, so I’m curious about your decision to change Citizen Kane into the movie President Kane. Why did you decide to do that?

Technically, Taft 2012 is a work of alternate history. Most alt-history novels, though, portray radically mutated versions of history. Although Taft disappears in 1913 in my book, that major event doesn’t change the timeline of America very much — which was my perhaps not-so-subtle way of showing how unimportant a president Taft is considered to be. But I had to have his disappearance alter history in some way. And so I had Orson Welles base his epochal film on Taft instead of William Randolph Hearst (hence President Kane). Of course, rather than making Welles a legend as Citizen Kane did, President Kane ruins him. 

How do you think Taft would really do in today’s political environment? How do you think he’d do in debates? Would he identify as Republican or Democrat, conservative, moderate or liberal?

Taft did, and would still, identify himself as a progressive. That term, of course, has changed hands and connotations over the last century — it’s hard for us to wrap our heads around the idea that many of the social and political advances that took place a hundred years ago were passionately advocated by the likes of Republicans such as Taft and his predecessor, Teddy Roosevelt. As I lay out in my book, Taft would reject both of the major parties and consider himself an independent — just an increasing percentage of the American electorate now does. It’s a good thing Taft, as an independent, wouldn’t be allowed to participate in the presidential debates; he was a witty, erudite, voraciously intelligent man, and he would have mopped up the floor with every one of his rivals. (Okay, maybe not Obama.)

I understand you’re not only giving Taft 2012 his own Facebook page on which he comments on the current political scene but may do some campaign trailers — can you talk about what you’ve done so far on this front and what you have planned as we get closer to the November election. Feel free to share links.

That trailers have been released, and they’re filmed in the style of Taft campaign ads. I wrote the scripts for them, and it was a total blast.

(You can see one of them here and another here)

This is a great first novel. What do you plan to do next?

Thanks! I have a couple novels in the works right now. Both are far more in the science fiction/fantasy vein than Taft 2012. They’re also pretty dark and apocalyptic. And yet, they’re both obsessed with politics in one form or another. Go figure.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.
  • http://www.lunch.com/DrJosephSMaresca Dr Joseph S Maresca

    Much has been written about the President and Chief Justice Taft. His service just preceded WWI and the years leading up to the Great Depression. A major quote is:

    “The diplomacy of the present administration has sought to respond to modern ideas of commercial intercourse. This policy has been characterized as substituting dollars for bullets. It is one that appeals alike to idealistic humanitarian sentiments, to the dictates of sound policy and strategy, and to legitimate commercial aims.”