This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE
As the presidential special sped him back to Washington on Oct. 26, 1909, William Howard Taft dared to dream of carrying the Lone Star State in 1912.
Six months after taking office in March 1909, the new chief executive embarked on a grueling 12,000-mile cross-country tour. Fence-mending was the order of day, and nowhere were political fences in as dire need of repair than in Texas, where Republicans remained an endangered species.
When William McKinley received a third of the popular vote in 1896 and 1900, the GOP seemed on the verge of shedding its Reconstruction stigma. But 23-percent showings by Teddy Roosevelt in 1904 and Taft in 1908 shattered Republican hopes of a resurgence in Texas.
The influx of 50,000 sightseers in advance of the presidential visit on Sat., Oct. 16, 1909 more than doubled the population of El Paso. The presence of 3,000 soldiers and hundreds of plainclothes security agents was more than strictly ceremonial. Texas’ westernmost town teemed with Mexican citizens driven into exile by Porfirio Diaz, the ruthless strongman who had reigned supreme south of the border for nearly 30 years.
Cameras and umbrellas were confiscated and all rooftops cleared before the dictator walked alone across the international bridge. Diaz’s personal bodyguard of “60 men in gorgeous uniforms of green and gold” stayed behind in Juarez, while an American military escort delivered the despised dignitary to the waiting president.
No harm came to Diaz, but blood did flow in El Paso. A petty argument over a flag between two 15 year old boys ended with one of the youths stabbing the other to death. Taft passed within a few feet of the crime scene but never noticed the body, which had been quickly hidden from view so as not to spoil his day.
That night Diaz held a banquet in the Juarez custom house, which had undergone a $50,000 renovation for the feast. Guests such as Sen. Joseph Weldon Bailey and Gov. Tom Campbell of Texas ate off famous china that once belonged to Emperor Maximilian.
Taft toasted the historical significance of the occasion: “This is the first time, so far as I know, that a president of the United States has stepped beyond the boundaries of the United States.”
The next stop on Taft’s itinerary was San Antonio, where he spent Sunday night in a suite at the St. Anthony hotel. Bright and early Monday morning, he went by motorcade to Fort Sam Houston down streets lined by 14,000 singing schoolchildren.
During the dedication of the new post chapel, a clergyman offered a prayer that included the phrase “and thou has opened wide thy hand and made us wax fat.” The 300-pound president kept a straight face, but many in the audience could not resist giggling.
Following a short reception at the officer’s club, Taft spoke to a standing-room-only throng of 50,000 on Alamo plaza. Then it was off to his brother’s ranch near Gregory for four days of rest and recreation.
Charles Taft met the presidential train on Monday night with his private fleet of horseless carriages. “Automobiles, eh?” his sibling teased. “Well, they tell me all you rich farmers have them these days!”
Private citizen Taft had married the daughter of David Sinton, whose vast 400,000-acre domain covered most of San Patricio County. To make his brother feel more at home, he built a nine-hole golf course, reportedly the finest in the state, and a palatial 36-room residence on a cliff overlooking Nueces Bay. Between rounds of golf and his first cowboy roundup, Taft stuck his head in at the inland waterways convention in Corpus Christi.
As dawn broke over Houston on Saturday the 23rd, the White House express rolled into Grand Central depot. Taft hurried to the Rice Hotel, site of the capitol of the Texas Republic, where a multitude of early risers eagerly awaited his open-air address.
The Ohio native stepped out on the balcony sporting the colors of the old Confederacy on his lapel. The significance of the southern symbol was not lost on the crowd, which roared in approval and appreciation.
A hundred and twenty-five thousand Texans, almost twice the number that voted for him the previous November, greeted Taft late that afternoon at the fair grounds in Dallas. Only a handful actually heard his remarks, however, since the strain of 1,700 speeches had reduced his booming baritone to a hoarse whisper.
Tragedy marred the last stop in Texas as it had the first. As Taft rode through downtown, a National Guardsman fatally bayoneted the Dallas County deputy clerk for failing to keep his distance.
The enormous turnout on his 1909 tour had Taft thinking he might carry Texas in his bid for a second term. But in 1912 the incumbent won only Utah and Vermont coming in third behind Democrat Woodrow Wilson and Bull Moose candidate Teddy Roosevelt.
It was the same win, place and show in the Lone Star State with the added indignity that William Howard Taft finished a mere 1,012 votes ahead of Socialist Eugene Debs.
Now taking pre-orders for “Tornadoes, Hurricanes & Other Disasters” the latest “Best of This Week in Texas History” collection. Order today for mid-November delivery by mailing a check for $14.20 to Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549.
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