Author Jason Heller on his inspiration for Taft 2012.
One of the first questions an author usually gets asked is, “Why did you write about that thing you wrote about?” Such a simple question to ask; such a complicated question to answer. In my case, however, the answer is easy: I wrote my debut novel, Taft 2012, about President William Howard Taft because… [drum roll]… someone asked me to. Really. That’s it. The editor of Taft 2012, Stephen H. Segal, concocted the crazy idea of a book that imagines a 2012 presidential election that includes a resurrected Taft as an independent candidate. I’d worked for Stephen during his tenure at the legendary magazine Weird Tales, and I trusted his warped view of literature and reality. He, in turn, seemed to trust mine.
When Stephen presented me with this concept, I was intrigued. I was also confused. “Why Taft?” I wondered, much as you might be at this very moment. But after Stephen and I tossed around a few ideas—plot, characters, inevitable theme park—that question began to answer itself. With another question, of course: What hasn’t anyone else written this book already?
Taft 2012 was an idea just waiting to be plucked from the firmament of potentiality. Here’s this guy: He never wanted to be president. He was goaded into it by his wife, his mother, and his boss (Teddy Roosevelt). Then, when he became president, he instantly loathed it. Better yet, he publicly stated—while in office!—how much he hated being in office. Inconceivable. And yet, what could epitomize democracy better than a president who hated being president?
The timing didn’t hurt. William Howard Taft’s bid for a second term (yeah, he was a bit of a masochist) tanked in 1912—one hundred years before the 2012 election. We humans are obsessed with nice, round numbers like that. Seriously, though, there are a lot of parallels to draw between the elections of 1912 and 2012, foremost among them the fact that progressivism—then and now—was under attack.
The big difference? In 1912, Taft’s party—the GOP—were the progressives.
Like I said, Taft 2012 was just begging to be written. And the more I researched Taft, the more I came to love the ornery galoot. Sure, he got stuck in a bathtub and all that. But in reality, he was stuck in a more dramatic spot: the dead zone between two of the most momentous presidencies in American history, those of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Like a middle child, Taft has been forgotten. His pivotal role as a transitional president—between an iconic Republican president and an iconic Democratic one—can’t be overstated.
I’ll admit, I took a few liberties with my characterization of Taft. Okay, a lot of liberties. Oh, all right: I completely made him up. My version of Taft bears little relation to the real guy. Then again, who’s to say what Taft—or you, or me—would behave like if we were to suddenly wake up a century in the future? At its core, that’s what Taft 2012 is about. Sure, it concerns politics and pop culture and lots of other ostensibly deep stuff. Fundamentally, though, it's about a man who was out of place in his own time—who’s now stuck in a time that’s not even his own. And that, ultimately, is why I wrote about him. And why, through writing about him, I kind of fell in love with a president whom no one loves—let alone remembers.