27. William Howard Taft

Historic site (January 14, 2006)

He was an amazing man with an astonishing career. But you will always know him as "The Fat President Who I Heard Got Stuck in the White House Tub."

And that's why William Howard Taft is truly impressive. How many people could pull off that kind of life today? Any ONE of his jobs would make for an impressive career. That he did it at 300 pounds is astonishing. Taft was never elected to Congress, but is there even a single 300-pounder in Congress today? Are we now so superficial that we do not consider the morbidly obese fit for public life? If we're going down that road, America, let's at least kick out the uggos, too. Let's make C-SPAN into FitTV with policy debates. Or, if we're going the other way, let's have VH1 pony up the cash for a reality show in which 1,000-pound people run for the House. That idea is free, America.

Either way, let's give it up for a guy who lived large. Taft was a very big cog in a lot of different machines: he was a phenomenal lawyer, a college professor, and Benjamin Harrison's Solicitor General (the guy who argues before the Supreme Court for the government). He was an appeals court judge, a cabinet member and the governor of two different islands. And he was Theodore Roosevelt's bestest buddy, until they had a falling out and Roosevelt drove Taft to the worst defeat ever by an incumbent president. Some trivia:

  • His dad, Alphonso, moved to Cincinnati from New England, because he said he was tired of "all 'dem punk-ass b****** back North." OK, really, he wanted to start a law practice. But I bet he THOUGHT that other thing.
  • His grandfather, much like Judge Joe Brown, was a self-taught judge.
  • Every one of Alphonso Taft's sons went to law school and all but one became successful lawyers. My dad has three sons, only one of whom is going to law school. I CAN'T BE A TAFT, DAD. I WON'T.
  • Alphonso and William also were both the Secretary of War. Dad, if you had done that, I might have followed in your footsteps. It just makes for a great business card. And while we're on the subject, when can we go back to calling it the War Department? "Defense" isn't fooling anyone. I'd even be open to "Department of Oh No You Didn't."
  • Taft didn't want to be president. His dream was to be on the Supreme Court. His wife Nellie, the Hillary Clinton of her day, basically railroaded him into running. She was his closest political adviser, and according to my excellent guide Kerry, she probably wrote a lot of his speeches. Unfortunately, due to the political climate of the early 20th Century, she never got the opportunity to be the most disastrous presidential candidate in our nation's history. Go Hillary Go!
  • Nellie was responsible for getting the cherry blossom trees (a gift from Japan) planted around the Tidal Basin in DC. Did you know that we gave the Japanese dogwoods in return? Funny how you never hear about any Dogwood Festivals. They're proabably still a little sore over the nuclear bombings and whatnot, I guess.
  • He turned down three nominations to the Supreme Court during his career before becoming Chief Justice in 1921. But he never, ever, turned down a corndog.
  • He was the governor the Philippines from 1901-1904. Why? Because he had to skip out of the country for a few years until the heat died down.
  • Tour guide Kerry is from Cave City, Ky., and used to work at Mammoth Cave (which is about #3 on the "things I gotta see in the United States" list). He ran the Wild Cave Tour and one time had a woman flip out about halfway through a six-hour trip. Very nice guy. Talk to your Park Rangers, folks -- they're not just a uniform, they're people.

Ths site in Cincy is Taft's boyhood home, sort of. The house was sold at one point an carved into apartments, plus it fell into horrible disrepair before the Park Service got it back. So the inside is kind of light on authentic Taft stuff. They make up for it with a nice little museum on the second floor, but you aren't going to be exactly transported back into the past, staring at the honest-to-goodness romper rooms of a brainy little boy with a sweet tooth. But if that's what you want, you can just stop in at my childhood home. Same difference.

If you're ever in the D.C. area, you can see the big man's final resting place -- he's one of two presidents contemplating the lighter side of death at Arlington National Cemetery. Taft and his wife don't have anything approaching the Kennedy spread, but there's a tasteful marker, not far from the entrance, sitting in the shade. Which is nice, considering how much shade Taft must have generated in his day.

One man's quest to be the humblest person alive
Copyright 2013, Chris White