T aft was physically the largest president in U.S. history. The public viewed him as a big, good-humored president who was "always smiling" (Bumgarner 1994: 167). However, he is also remembered as "cautious, somewhat lethargic," a "natural follower," and "temperamentally unsuited for the intensely political character of the presidency" (Brinkley and Dyer 2004: 286 and 195). He weighed 340 pounds at his heaviest.
Taft was aware of his size, even writing to his wife in 1905 that he would "make a conscientious effort to lose flesh" (Pringle 1939: 286). The following year, he went on a physician-guided reducing diet high in protein and low in fat and sweets. Taft also exercised and dropped his weight from 320 to 225 pounds, but by the time presidential elections came around in 1908, he again weighed around 300 pounds and had eight-course breakfasts. Taft was mocked by the public for having an oversized bathtub installed in the White House which was large enough for four people. It was often said that Taft got stuck in the White House bathtub, and several men were needed to free him. The jokes about his weight continued, including a Supreme Court associate justice who said, "Taft is the politest man alive. I heard that recently he arose in a streetcar and gave his seat to three women"; a secretary of war who, upon learning that Taft had traveled on horseback asked, "Referring to your telegram, how is the horse?"; and a New York senator who placed his hand on Taft's abdomen and asked, "What are you going to name it when it comes, Mr. President?" (Bumgarner 1994: 168-9).
Taft learned to respond goodnaturedly to such remarks and even made jokes about his own weight.
After his presidential term, Taft again went on a diet, this time guided by the Dean of Yale University's medical school. In an interview with the New York Times, Taft describes his diet:
I dropped potatoes entirely from my bill of fare, and also bread in all forms. Pork is also tabooed, as well as other meats in which there is a large percentage of fat. All the vegetables except potatoes are permitted, and of meats, that of all fowls is permitted. In the fish line I abstain from salmon and bluefish, which are the fat members of the fish family. I am also careful not to drink more than two glasses of water at each meal. I abstain from wines and liquors of all kinds, as well as tobacco in every form. The last is, however, nothing unusual, for I never drink intoxicants anyway, and I have never used tobacco in my life.
He reduced his size to 250 pounds and lowered his blood pressure, declaring that "I can truthfully say I never felt any younger in all my life. Too much flesh is bad for any man. It affects a man both physically and mentally" (Anon. 1913). Taft suffered from chronic drowsiness during his presidency but not afterwards; the sleepiness may have been what we now call sleep apnea, which is linked to obesity (Brown 2003).
Taft was not the only president for whom body size and eating habits were an issue. Both he and Warren Harding were guests at John Kellogg's Battle Creek Sanitarium
(Spake 2005). Andrew Jackson's thin frame (at over 6 feet tall, he never weighed more than i45 pounds, Remini 1988: 7) may have saved his life in a duel; his opponent misjudged the location of Jackson's heart because his coat was too big for his build (James 1938: 118). Martin van Buren was criticized for being indulgent and aristocratic because he enjoyed fine foods; some even suspected that he wore a corset (Bumgarner 1994: 56). More recently, Bill Clinton was teased for his morning jogs, which included a stop at McDonald's.
See also Fat Camp; Kellogg
References and Further Reading
Anon. (1913) "Mr. Taft on diet loses 70 pounds,"
New York Times, December 12: 1. Anon. (2004) "Was President Sleep Deprived?" Current
Science 89 (10): 12. Brinkley, Alan and Dyer, Davis (eds) (2004) William
Howard Taft: The American Presidency, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Brown, David (2003) "Taft's Nodding Off Attributed to Illness," Washington Post, September 21: A03.
Bumgarner, John R. (1994) The Health of the Presidents, Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company.
Gould, Lewis L. (2000) "Taft, William Howard," American National Biography Online, available online at <http://www.anb.org/articles/06/06-00642.html> (accessed February 27, 2006).
James, Marquis (1938) The Life of Andrew Jackson, New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company.
O'Neill, Molly (1994) "At White House, a Taste of Virtue," New York Times, April 6.
Pringle Henry F. (1939) The Life and Times of William Howard Taft, New York, NY: Farrar & Rinehart.
Remini, Robert V. (1988) The Life of Andrew Jackson, New York: Harper & Row.
Spake, Amanda (2005) "Utopia in a Cereal Bowl," U.S. News, August 15, available online at <http:// www.usnews.com/usnews/culture/articles/050815/15 health.htm> (accessed February 27, 2006).
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