15 Facts About William Howard Taft
By Mark Mancini
Here are 15 larger-than-life fun facts to help you celebrate William Howard Taft—born 157 years ago yesterday—and his plus-sized legacy.
1. He Was the Last President to Rock Facial Hair While in Office.
Between the Lincoln and Taft administrations, all but two commanders-in-chief boasted some sort of face fuzz. But since our 27th president left the White House in 1913, clean-shaven candidates have monopolized the job.
2. Taft’s Family Maintained a Long-Standing Political Dynasty.
His son, Robert (also known as “Mr. Republican”), became one of the twentieth century’s most influential senators; his grandson—William Howard Taft IV—went on to tackle various executive duties for Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
3. A Dairy Expo Once Spent Two Days Fretting Over his Missing Milk Cow.
Pauline Wayne was quite the bovine beauty. A gift from Wisconsin Senator Isaac Stephenson, this purebred cow produced roughly eight gallons of daily milk for the first family. Sensing a crowd-pleaser, the 1911 International Dairymen’s Exposition arranged to transport her all the way from D.C. to Milwaukee—but Pauline’s train car wound up getting lost en route. After some frenzied telegraphing, the President’s cow was discovered two days later in a Chicago stockyard, where she just barely avoided getting slaughtered.
4. Taft Valued Being on the Supreme Court Over his Presidency.
Though he’s best remembered for his one-term stint on Pennsylvania Avenue, Taft had been pining for the Judicial Branch since 1889. Upon becoming Chief Justice in 1921, he happily declared “I don’t remember that I was ever president.”
5. He Debuted the “Presidential First Pitch.”
Hall of Famer Walter Johnson managed to snag a low-flying ball Taft gracelessly lobbed from the stands at the start of a 1910 Washington Senators game. One hundred and four years later, this opening day tradition’s still going strong.
6. Taft’s Wife Crashed the 1912 DNC to Shield Him from Ridicule.
It’s hard to demean someone whose spouse is sitting right in front of you. After her husband won the Republican presidential nomination, First Lady Helen Herron “Nellie” Taft made a beeline for the Democratic National Convention in Baltimore. Grabbing a front-row seat, she stared down orator after orator, including the cantankerous William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska, who suddenly decided to soften his anti-Taft rhetoric.
7. His Nicknames Included “Big Bill” and “Big Lub.”
For the record, Nellie called him “Sleeping Beauty” due to Taft’s bad habit of dozing off at parties (more on that later).
8. Taft Swore in Two Other Presidents.
As Chief Justice, he administered the oath of office to fellow conservatives Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover.
9. He Briefly Worked as a Part-Time Reporter.
Taft covered courthouse news for The Cincinnati Commercial while making ends meet as a law student. However, after becoming president, his attitude towards journalists cooled considerably.
10. He Lost 70 Pounds After Leaving the White House.
“I can truthfully say that I never felt any younger in all my life,” Taft announced, having given up bread, potatoes, pork, and liquor. “Too much flesh is bad for any man.”
11. You Know About Teddy Bears, But “Billy Possums”?
Ever been to a “Build-An-Opossum” workshop? Neither have we. Worried that America’s Teddy Bear mania would evaporate after Roosevelt’s last term, toy manufacturers started producing stuffed “Billy Possums”—named in president-elect Taft’s honor—en masse. Needless to say, these things didn’t last long.
12. Taft Tended to Fall Asleep at Public Functions.
“Most of the time,” admitted Indiana Senator James Watson, “[Taft] simply did not and could not function in alert fashion… Often while I was talking to him after a meal, his head would fall over on his breast and he would go sound asleep for 10 or 15 minutes. He would waken and resume the conversation, only to repeat the performance in the course of half an hour or so.” President Taft was also seen snoozing at operas, funerals, and—especially—church services.
13. He Successfully Lobbied for the Modern Supreme Court Building.
The government’s Judicial Branch didn’t always convene in the majestic building we know today. Before 1935, the Supreme Court issued its rulings from various rooms inside the Capitol. Chief Justice Taft changed all that, successfully lobbying Congress to give the Court its own separate building at a cost of $10 million.
14. Taft Recently Became One of the Washington Nationals’ Racing Mascots.
Since 2006, wonky caricatures of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt have been sprinting across the Nats’ home field and into the hearts of D.C. sports fans. These Rushmore racers were given some awfully big competition when Taft was added to their roster in 2013. “He might even give Teddy a run for his money,” said Nationals COO Andy Feffer.
15. Taft Once Had an Embarrassing Bathtub Incident (No, Not That One).
Today, most people remember Taft as “the president who got stuck in a bathtub while in office.” The actual evidence behind this particular washroom anecdote is rather murky, but at least one of Taft’s bathing sessions ended in catastrophe. While entering a hotel tub in 1915, the ex-president apparently failed to take fluid displacement into account. A wave of Taft’s dirty bathwater instantly poured out, seeped through the floor, and started dripping all over people’s heads on the level beneath him. Though briefly humiliated, Taft made light of the situation. While looking out at the Atlantic Ocean shortly thereafter, he quipped, “I’ll get a piece of that fenced in some day, and then I venture to say there won’t be any overflow.”