Good morning, it's Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, the birthday of William Howard Taft. The big man was born on this date in 1857, in Cincinnati, Ohio, and although he had an exceptionally successful career in public service, he is remembered today mainly for being fat. Ask an American to tell you something about the 27th U.S. president and, if they recall anything at all, it would be that Taft was so obese he got stuck in a bathtub at the White House.
This anecdote is not only mean, it's almost certainly untrue. It's also unfair to the man's legacy. William Taft, whose first love was the law, not politics, was handpicked by Theodore Roosevelt as ambassador to the Philippines, secretary of war and, finally, as his successor in 1908. After leaving the Oval Office, Taft taught at Yale Law School; in 1921, Warren Harding named him chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, a job he held, happily, until his death in 1930. "I don't remember," Taft said after being appointed to the high court, "that I was ever president."
He didn't seem to always remember it even when he had the job. Like our current president, William Howard Taft was a golf addict. Although Ulysses Grant and William McKinley had both briefly tried the sport, which was new to America at the time, Taft was our first golfing commander-in-chief. Ordinary people watched this overweight, unathletic man struggle with the game -- but never give it up -- and thought, "I could do that. And it looks like fun." William Howard Taft launched the golf craze in America, an enthusiasm that has never really subsided.
* * *
Barack Obama was criticized, as many presidents were before him, for spending too much time on the golf course. One of those doing the criticizing, oddly enough, was a non-politician named Donald J. Trump. I say "oddly" because as president, Trump golfs at about twice the frequency that Obama did. (If you care about such things, Dwight Eisenhower put them both in the shade. Ike golfed some 800 times during his two terms -- 29 times at Augusta National alone.)
But let's get back to William Howard Taft.
Theodore Roosevelt hated the game of golf, and he nagged Taft for playing it. TR didn't like the optics and, let's face it, with Taft he had a point. Taft's political opponents, along with Democratic Party-leaning newspapers, joined in the needling.
The president "preferred golf to work," sniped Kansas Gov. Walter Stubbs. One of Kansas' largest newspapers, the Wichita Beacon, was even snarkier. "It is said that Taft plays better golf than politics," the paper editorialized. "And he generally loses at golf."
For his part, Taft extolled the health benefits of the game. This argument had merit, at least then. In the days before electric carts, a golf course had to be walked, even by presidents. It was, Taft said, "a splendid form of exercise." He also rejected the common slur, which one still hears today, that golf links are the environs of the rich.
"I know that there is nothing more democratic than golf," Taft wrote, "that there is nothing which furnishes a greater test of character and self-restraint, nothing which puts one more on an equality with one's fellows, or, I may say, puts one lower than one's fellows, than the game of golf."
Humility aside, in the end Taft paid a steep price for choosing the sport over his friendship with Teddy Roosevelt. His mentor was a high-maintenance kind of friend -- keeping TR happy required as much time and diligence as keeping one's golf game sharp. But in the end the joke was on Roosevelt. When TR decided to run as a third-party candidate in 1912, he gave the presidency to Woodrow Wilson. And one lesser-known facet of Wilson's presidency is that he golfed far more than Dwight Eisenhower. In fact, Woodrow Wilson golfed more than Taft and Trump put together.
The 28th president's doctor, Cary T. Grayson, actually prescribed the game to him as way of taking his mind off the world's troubles. Sometimes Grayson accompanied Wilson on these outings. In a 1915 letter to one of his daughters, Wilson even suggested that it was good for the country that he keep at it.
"The doctor and I played golf yesterday, to reassure the country," Wilson wrote, "and all goes well."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.