Taft’s Hyattsville Gaffe

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President William Howard Taft speaks in Springfield, Mass., on April 26, 1912. Courtesy Library of Congress. http://1.usa.gov/147CWzI

Hyattsville could lay claim to the first presidential campaign gaffe.

In 1912, President William Howard Taft was running for the Republican nomination against his erstwhile mentor, Teddy Roosevelt.

At the time, it was considered beneath the dignity of the president to campaign actively. But Roosevelt’s slashing critiques of Taft were having an effect. During a rally in Hyattsville on May 4, the president fought back. Here’s the New York Times’ account:

“I’m a man of peace,” shouted the President at Hyattsville, “and I don’t want to fight. But when I do fight I want to hit hard. Even a rat in a corner will fight.”

The President said he deprecated the necessity that forced him to come out in a political campaign like an ordinary candidate. “If only my personal ambition was concerned,” he said, “if only my personal reputation was at stake, I shouldn’t bother you, but I consider that I represent a cause.”

One historian noted that Taft’s metaphors were “singularly inept.” Another noted that the line about a rat did not appear in a transcript — either because the stenographer was being discreet or because they were stricken later.

Reporters swore the president said the words and they were printed in newspapers from coast to coast — and the first presidential campaign gaffe was born.

Taft won the nomination, but it was a pyrrhic victory. Roosevelt bolted to form a third party, splitting the Republican vote and allowing Democrat Woodrow Wilson to win.

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