Sunday, February 20, 2000

Drag the kids to chat with Charlie Taft




BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        I don't know about this. Dan Hurley thinks I should suggest that parents take their kids to a museum on Monday. Not a kid museum with water games and puppet shows. A history museum.

        “It's Presidents Day,” he says. “What could be more perfect than a visit to a museum about a president?”

        Right, Dan. Just perfect. (His idea of perfection no doubt is tragically skewed by the fact that he is a historian by profession and passion.) This is the real world, my academic friend. Dot-com. Video games. Bart Simpson and South Park. Disney. The Gap.

        My husband and I once took our 11-year-old daughter to the Queen Mother of All Museums, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. After standing in line for an hour to view Grover Cleveland's pipe rack and Nancy Reagan's Inaugural Ball gown, I caught her trying to sneak off with a bunch of German tourists.

        “They said they were going to Georgetown to shop,” she told us, unrepentant.

Just being polite
        But I'm fond of Dan, who has sorted out history questions for me more than once. So I went to see his museum. Just to be polite.

        The Taft Education Center, which opened last November, is at 2037 Auburn Ave. in Mount Auburn, right next to the William Howard Taft birthplace. Tucked down low and unabashedly modern, it's dwarfed by its imposing and venerable brick neighbor.

        These two buildings, part of the National Park System, are the genesis of whatever claims Cincinnati has to a political dynasty. And a social and cultural one, as well. Taft Museum of Art, Robert A. Taft High School, William Howard Taft Road, Taft Broadcasting, the Taft Theatre, the law firm of Taft, Stettinius & Hollister.

        This is not to mention the Cincinnati Symphony, the Charter Party, the Cincinnati Times-Star, the University of Cincinnati and the Republican Party — all Taft projects over six generations and more than 160 years of public life.

        But I haven't gotten to the good part yet.

        The tour guide at this place is remarkable. When you cross the threshold into the museum area, a rumbling voice says, “Come on over. I hear you want to learn something about the Tafts. At least enough to keep us straight.”

        I could feel my scalp prickle.

        It was Charlie Taft.

        Not really, of course. It's an animatronic figure, dressed in Charlie's fishing vest, plaid shirt and khaki pants. He's sitting on a stump on the banks of the Little Miami with a fishing pole and tackle box. To one side of the diorama is his old mud-splattered Ford Mustang with the matching gold canoe strapped to the top. “Just in case,” as he liked to say.

A beloved storyteller
        “I love to fish so I keep this canoe on the top of the car year-around. Great place for campaign stickers, and it makes it easy to locate my car in those parking lots at the malls,” the voice continues. “Besides fishing, I love to tell stories.”

        It is a wonderful pretend conversation with a splendid man, who remains our icon of “good government” nearly two decades after his death. He talks about his father, the only man in history to serve his country both as president and chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, his mother (“a public force in her own right”), who was responsible for the famous cherry trees in Washington, D.C.

        Charlie, thanks to the historian Dan Hurley, is ready to chat daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. There is no admission fee and only a modest gift shop, which will be largely untempting to the average child, as it contains no sugar or moving parts. They might accidentally learn something they won't find on the Internet or at the mall. It'll take 45 minutes. Tops.

        Then you can all go shopping.

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at laurapulfer@enquirer.com or call (513) 768-8393. Her column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.