by Carl Sferrazza Anthony, Historian of the National First Ladies Library
Helen “Nellie” Taft was not only the first incumbent First Lady who attended a national convention which nominated a presidential candidate, she is still the only one to have appeared at the one held to nominate the candidate who challenged her own husband for the presidency, the convention of the opposing party.
The Republican Convention was held in Chicago and ended on Friday, June 22, 1912 with her husband, the incumbent President William Howard Taft winning re-nomination. Since this also meant that the challenge to him for the nomination from former President Theodore Roosevelt had failed, Mrs. Taft now believed that the only great threat to her husband’s re-election was to be his Democratic opponent.
The Democratic Convention began three days later, on Monday, June 25. It was held in Baltimore, just one hour by train from Washington. Overtly political in all matters related to her husband’s re-election (and her own strong determination to have another four years as First Lady), she attended the convention as the guest of her friend Harriet T. Mack, whose husband Norman E. Mack was National Chairman of the Democratic Party. They were joined by two younger women, a Miss L.L. Francis and Miss Mildred Aubry.
Reporters inside the convention hall noted that the First Lady sat front and center in the “enemy territory” of the opposition party and that her presence intimidated the fiery Democratic speaker William Jennings Bryan who was a candidate for the nomination.
Being faced directly by President Taft’s wife, Bryan decided to abandon the harsh criticism he had planned to make of her husband. Ultimately, it was Woodrow Wilson who was chosen as the 1912 Democratic presidential nominee. Neither he nor his wife Ellen Axson attended.
Mrs. Taft also returned to Baltimore the following day, for all of the sessions of the convention.
In August, however, former President Roosevelt and those Republicans disenchanted with the party’s nomination of Taft formed their own breakaway party, the Bull Moose Progressives, and nominated him as their candidate. With Roosevelt making it a three-way presidential race, the Republican vote was split and Wilson won the election.
Nellie Taft would again attend another political convention. This time she appeared at the 1940 Republican National Convention held in Philadelphia. Her son Robert Taft, a U.S. Senator, was seeking the nomination but it was won by Wendell Wilkie.