The punchline, which is not too far below, is the hilariously diffident (or does one mean “demure”) statement by which William Howard Taft in 1908 (the year in which he was elected president), announced publicly that in the unlikely event that the Republican Party nominated him for president, he would not decline.
It comes from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s delightful book, “The Bully Pulpit,” about the Teddy Roosevelt-Taft relationship. Roosevelt was president in 1908, and would probably have liked to remain so, but TR had boxed himself in by pledging, after his landslide win in 1904, not to seek another term. He decided that he would at least try to arrange for Taft, his long-time friend then serving as secretary of war, to succeed him.
Roosevelt did everything he could, short of admitting what he was doing and while insisting that he had nothing to say about who should succeed him, to orchestrate a boom within the Republican Party for Taft. His efforts were so transparent that the Kansas City Times spoofed him, in a poem titled “Impartial Mr. Roosevelt” (also quoted by Goodwin). It went:
Says Roosevelt: “I announce no choice
To no man will I lend my voice
I have no private candidate
I care not whom you nominate —
Just so it’s Taft.”
For most of U.S. history until this period, candidates for presidents were expected to do nothing overt or public to advance their nomination. But Taft carried this to such extremes that there came a moment when Taft had about convinced the country that he had no interest in the job and, if nominated, he might refuse to run. So, under pressure to reassure his supporters that this was (strictly) the case, he published a statement, characterized by and quoted by Goodwin the paragraph below:
Taft’s declaration of candidacy was so tepid, so lacking in conviction that it sounded s if he had decided not to run: “I wish to say that my ambition is not political; that I am not seeking the presidential nomination, that I do not expect to be the Republican candidate.” Still, he avowed, “I am not foolish enough to say that in the improbable event that the opportunity to run for the great office President were to come to me, I should decline it, for this would not be true.”