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William Howard Taft, the only man to serve as U.S. president and chief justice of the Supreme Court, undoubtedly pulled his weight, politically.
Still, there’s no truth to the rumor that Taft, a hefty man who tipped the scales at well over 300 pounds, once got stuck in the White House bathtub.
The bathtub myth was dispelled for me by a ranger at the William Howard Taft National Historic Site at Taft’s boyhood home in the Mount Auburn neighborhood of Cincinnati. I learned a lot of interesting stories about Taft and his family during my brief visit to the only historical site dedicated to the 27th president.
Taft’s father, Alphonso, a prominent attorney who established the new Republican Party in Cincinnati, bought the brick, two-story Greek-revival house in 1851, six years before William was born.
Several of the main rooms downstairs have been restored to their appearance during the future president’s childhood. Fortunately, Taft’s mother, Louise, wrote extensively to her family in Massachusetts about decorating and home improvements, which have allowed modern researchers to recreate the home’s period look down to the brand and position of the family piano.
His mother also noted that the roly-poly “Willie laughs & plays constantly,” and was “well and hardy & a most charming baby as you would wish to see.” And throughout his life, Taft would continue to be known as a jovial and good-natured fellow, even by his political opponents.
Alphonso’s connections helped William establish his legal and political career very early. After passing the Ohio Bar exam, he was quickly appointed to positions of authority in the state and federal court systems.
He also became a political protege of President Theodore Roosevelt, who appointed him governor of the Philippines, which the United States had just won in the Spanish-American War.
Although Taft coveted a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, he turned down an appointment to the court by Roosevelt to complete his work in the Pacific. But at Roosevelt’s urging, he accepted the Republican nomination in 1908 as Roosevelt’s successor and easily won the election.
In 1912, Roosevelt and Taft had a falling out. Roosevelt tried to get the nomination for himself, failed, and ran as the “Bull Moose” third-party candidate, splitting the Republican vote with Taft and throwing the election to Woodrow Wilson. (And we all know how that worked out.)
Taft took his defeat with his typical grace and good humor. And in 1921, he was appointed by President Warren Harding to his dream job as the 10th chief justice of the United States.
Taft died in 1930, universally respected as an incorruptible and friendly leader — and one who never once got stuck in a bathtub.
For more information about the William Howard Taft National Historic Site, call 513-684-3262 or visit nps.gov/wiho.
— Steve Stephens can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @SteveStephens.