A burly beast of a man bursts into a presidential press conference and is shot in the leg by secret police. Two days later, the White House reveals that the befuddled intruder with a handlebar mustache is really former President William Howard Taft.
So begins Taft 2012, a novel that gives a satirical take on contemporary politics through the eyes of a president who served a century ago. Author Jason Heller places Taft in a 21st-century election campaign, where he is forced to sit in bars on New Year's Eve and master Twitter along the way.
"I don't think that there's such a thing as too absurd," Heller tells NPR's David Greene on Morning Edition. "And I really like having him be sort of implausible."
Of all the presidents to resurrect, Taft is a curious choice. He is perhaps most well-known for his girth and for once, as the possibly apocryphal story goes, getting stuck in a bathtub.
"He's ... seen as, in many cases, a buffoon, and his presidency sort of falls between the cracks of two more pivotal presidents, Teddy Roosevelt before him and Woodrow Wilson after," Heller says.
Although he could have selected one of those presidential luminaries as his protagonist, Heller says he opted for the less prestigious Taft because he liked the idea of having an underdog president who has been mostly forgotten.
In the novel, Taft develops a relationship with Irene Kaye, a 106-year-old woman who lives in a nursing home in Cincinnati, Taft's hometown.
"They become friends because ... here's a woman who actually remembers his time, and that becomes something that he really clings to to orient himself," Heller says.
In one touching moment, Irene tells Taft, "Don't let these times taint you. If there's one thing this generation loves, it's to make things more difficult than they have to be. ... Do what you have to do, but don't let them turn you into someone else."
Taft 2012 could seem to suggest that if candidates today would just be themselves and ignore the interest groups, lobbyists and media pressures — if they were, in short, more like the Taft of the novel — politics would be much better off. But Heller is too pragmatic for such panaceas.
"The book isn't so much about [Taft] being an actual alternative; it's about people seeing him as a symbol, as an ideal, as something to strive toward," Heller says. "You know, having that kind of hope is something that I hope people never lose. The moment that's completely gone, then we're in even more trouble than we might already be."
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And now we bring you a fantasy newscast.
(SOUNDBITE OF FANFARE AND A NEWS CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: A giant beast of a man bursts into a presidential press conference, is shot by secret police. And now, two days later, the White House is telling us that this befuddled intruder in a carnival mustache really is the missing former President William Howard Taft. Almost a hundred years...
GREENE: This report comes straight out of a new novel called "Taft 2012." It's a satirical look at presidential politics through the eyes of a president who served a century ago. Author Jason Heller conjured up news accounts and classified reports, all pointing to something unimaginable: that William Howard Taft was back.
Here's the author, Heller, reading the account of a Secret Service agent who spotted an intruder.
JASON HELLER: (Reading) He was a very large man, over 6 feet tall, probably 300 pounds, wearing a formal tweed suit. He had white hair and a handlebar mustache. My first thought was that he looked like some sort of deranged presidential history buff dressed up as William Howard Taft.
GREENE: But in fact this was, in your book, William Howard Taft.
HELLER: The one and only.
GREENE: Now, the one and only Taft was larger than life. And there's this myth that has always tainted his reputation.
HELLER: Unfortunately he's mostly known as the president who got stuck in the bathtub.
GREENE: We should say historians have not confirmed the bathtub incident. But...
HELLER: I think that, that sort of sort of caricature of him has lasted longer than his actual political legacy. So he's kind of this president who is seen as, in many cases, a buffoon. And his presidency sort of falls between the cracks of two more pivotal presidents, Teddy Roosevelt before him and Woodrow Wilson after.
GREENE: We should say a lot of the book is just absolutely nuts.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GREENE: You have Taft traveling across the country, sitting in bars on New Year's Eve, tweeting along the way, learning about Twitter. I mean is there a place in the book where you look back and you say - even you say, this is just way too absurd - I can't believe I wrote this?
HELLER: I really like having him be sort of implausible. You know, I can set that tone right off the bat by having this mud-covered were-walrus of a man wandering around the White House lawn.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
HELLER: Then maybe I'm telegraphing to the reader, OK, this is the kind of ride that we're going to be going on.
GREENE: I want to ask you about one of the characters, sort of a touching character in the book, Irene Kay, who develops a relationship with the reborn President Taft. Tell us about Irene.
HELLER: So, Taft comes back to life but he has no living link to the past until he hears from Irene Kay, who is a 106-year-old woman living in a nursing home in Cincinnati, which is Taft's hometown. And they become friends because, well, for a lot of different reasons, but the main one being here's a woman who actually remembers his time. And that becomes something that he really clings to, to orient himself.
GREENE: And there's a touching moment in a nursing home where Irene tells Taft: Don't let these times taint you. If there's one thing this generation loves, it's to make things more difficult than they have to be.
And I wonder if you could pick up the conversation there on page 203, with Irene telling Taft: don't forget who you are.
HELLER: (Reading) "Remember what made this a great nation, what made you a great man in the first place." "And what might that be?" asked Taft, a sad smile touching his face. "Being you, being yourself - all of us, from 1776 on. Reach into your heart. Do what you have to do but don't let them turn you into someone else." She lightly rattled the tubes and wires that connected her body to the devices that kept her alive. "Don't let this century eat you up, President William Howard Taft. You eat it."
GREENE: You paint this picture, Jason, of, you know, if candidates today would just be who they are, ignore the interest group, the lobbyists, the media pressures that we see today. But is it really that easy, do you think?
HELLER: The book isn't so much about him being an actual alternative. It's about people seeing him as a symbol, as something to strive toward. To have to navigate the political landscape as it is, you have to sort of out-bastard the bastards, I think.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
HELLER: You know, as cynical as I can be about politics, I do think that it never hurts to have someone out there who at least presents that alternative. You know, having that kind of hope is something that I hope people never lose. You know, the moment that's completely gone, then we're in even more trouble than we might already be.
GREENE: That's Jason Heller. He is author of the new book "Taft 2012." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.