William Howard Taft was a big baby who became a big boy who became a very big man.
WHT: The Big Guy
William Howard Taft (1857-1930) came from a very prominent Cincinnati, Ohio family. His father had served in Grant’s Cabinet as well as in several diplomatic posts.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Will Taft went to Yale, graduated at the top of his class, returned to Ohio, became an attorney, and began a steady rise in public service.
As a full-grown man, the once-big baby became a six-footer, weighing anywhere between a svelte 250 lbs. (on a thin day), to a huge 350 lbs., depending on his level of stress.
Blessed with the proverbial fat-and-jolly disposition, Taft was always popular with all levels: mentors, peers and subordinates. Everybody loved him. When he married the former Helen Herron (1861-1943), her political intelligence and ambition provided a constant impetus for his political rise.
Early in his career, Taft was appointed to the “bench.” The sedentary judicial life suited him perfectly. The all-encompassing one-size-fits-all black robes also suited him perfectly. But Nellie, his ambitious wife, along with the close-knit Taft family, had other plans for their favorite relative.
Taft’s Road to Washington
Appointed Solicitor General by President Benjamin Harrison, the Tafts moved to Washington. The genial young attorney focused his wistful eye on the Supreme Court; Nellie focused her wistful eye on a better address a mile away on Pennsylvania Avenue.
President Harrison liked the big, personable and extremely competent Taft, and at the end of his single term, appointed him Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Justice. The continual travel of the Circuit Court suited him. Trains, restaurants and hotel living increased his girth.
Finally, at the end of the 19th century, and shortly after the Spanish-American War, President McKinley appointed Judge Taft as Governor-General of the Philippines, the Pacific island nation that had fallen into the American lap, whether we wanted it or not.
Taft In the Philippines
Taft was an ideal choice. He managed to unite (as best as could be united) a half-dozen insurgent factions, and began a road to real progress among the fractious population. They liked him.
Nellie Taft always considered the Philippines as a “dress rehearsal” for the Presidency. In Manila, she was the First Lady – and Taft was a popular leader. Both Tafts counted that time as among their happiest years.
He also managed to squeeze in some exotic travel, dear to the heart of both Tafts. The big fellow once wrote to Secretary of State Elihu Root, telling him of his trip on horseback through the tropical jungles. Root, a close friend of the 300-pounder, wired back inquiring, “How is the horse?”
During those Philippine years, Taft was offered his “dream job” – a seat on the Supreme Court – twice, no less, by now-President Theodore Roosevelt. Taft sighed and declined, citing his desire to complete ongoing efforts in Manila. Mrs. Taft sighed in relief. Her eye was still on the White House. The Supreme Court was a lifetime position, and Taft, still in his forties, was far too young to make such a commitment. When a Cabinet position was offered, however, the Taft’s returned home.
Taft Expands in the White House
Taft did not really want to be President, and he hemmed and hawed. The Brothers Taft, ably abetted by Nellie – along with persuasive President Theodore Roosevelt, a close personal friend, managed to twist the big guy’s arm.
Taft easily won the 1908 election.
All began well, but the culmination of dreams was abruptly ended when Mrs. Taft suffered a stroke only a few months into the administration. It was a long recovery that devastated all her dreams. It would equally devastate President Taft, who loved his wife dearly, and relied on her political savvy. Her inability to speak, read and write coherently deprived the President of a keen and prescient advisor. Her inability to “appear in public” deprived him of her regular nudge to keep him awake at the table.
Some people lose their appetites under stress. Some become ravenous.
Will Taft had always battled with weight. He had been placed on various diets by various doctors over the years. He had followed them and had even lost appreciable weight. But it was a yo-yo; it would never stay off permanently. Now, with the stress of the Presidency he never really wanted, the illness of his wife, and a growing rift with his ex-best friend, former-President Theodore Roosevelt, Taft’s weight ballooned to around 350 lbs. – heavier than he had ever been.
“Tubby” and Tubs
The legend is (according to long-ago White House Chief Usher Ike Hoover’s recollections) the overweight President literally became stuck in the bathtub and needed to be pried out. This may well be apocryphal, since if there actually was such an undignified and embarrassing personal incident, chances are it might be neatly hushed-up. But the general “public knowledge” is that several Taft-sized bathtubs were built and installed. One such tub was constructed for the battleship North Carolina sometime in 1909, when Taft was expected as a guest. Other appropriate-sized bathing venues were installed in other facilities where the chubby President was expected to stay. That includes the White House. A new tub was created specifically for our largest POTUS in circumference.
One absolutely true “tub story” concerns the Cape May Hotel in New Jersey, where the plus-sized Ex-POTUS was staying and bathing. Seems Taft’s weight “displaced” a ton of water, which overflowed onto the floor, leaked down through the ceiling, raining on guests dining below. The following day, as Taft was gazing at the Atlantic Ocean, he quietly remarked, “One day I’ll get a piece of that fenced in, and when I venture in, there won’t be an overflow.”
Hoover, Irwin Hood – 42 Years in the White House – Houghton Mifflin Co. , 1934