Each year on Presidents Day, you are likely to hear Americans debating who the greatest U.S. president was. And you'll hear the usual names; Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Kennedy, among others. All of those men certainly made their presidential mark, but there's another name that should be added to the mix: the 27th president of the United States, William Howard Taft.
Taft was the only U.S. president to serve also as chief justice of the United States. He was the first president to occupy the Oval Office, which became operational in 1909, the first year of his term. He was also the first president to have his own car, the first to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a baseball game and the last president to rock a mustache or have facial hair of any kind.
However, the thing that truly made Taft great was his girth. He was not only the first essentially modern U.S. president, he was the first to have a modern American appetite. Taft ushered in an era of American gluttony that helped define the "American Century" every bit as much as the telephone, the automobile and the electric guitar.
Think of all the times you said to yourself, "If I were in a position of great power, I would eat whatever I wanted and as much of it as I wanted."
As president, Taft lived the dream.
It's been said that a man can't be a great leader on an empty stomach, and one look at Taft's meal card tells us that he took those words to heart. For breakfast: grapefruit, partridge (both potted and grilled), venison, waffles, hominy, rolls and bacon as well as steak, oranges and huge amounts of coffee.
A lot, yes, but then he never settled for less than two different kinds of meat at any given meal. Lunch and dinner often included, in no particular order: lamb chops, smelt, lobster stew or lobster a la Newburg, salmon cutlets, tenderloin, cold tongue and ham, baked possum, terrapin soup and salad.
Let's not forget about dessert, because Taft certainly didn't. He especially loved butterscotch cream pie, lemon pie, caramel cake, four-fruit cream tarts and tapioca. Making sure Taft had fresh milk, butter and cream became such a national priority that the White House had its own cows grazing on the public grounds in front of the present-day Old Executive Office Building.
Eating so lavishly and being president and all, you would think that Taft never would have found enough time to get hungry. But apparently on one occasion, while traveling by train and learning that there was no dining car, he became furious and demanded that one always accompany him. "I want it well stocked with food," he said, "including filet mignon."
By the end of his first year in the White House, Taft was tipping the scales at nearly 350 pounds! He had become to presidents what Moby Dick was to whales.
I think it's probably OK to laugh at this point because everyone else was back in 1909. Taft became the butt of all kinds of cruel jokes and political cartoons about his weight.
There reportedly were embarrassing incidents of belching and flatulence along with sleep deprivation due to apnea, as well as the legendary tale where Taft got stuck in the White House bathtub, freed only when staffers used butter to dislodge him. That story has stuck because, true or not, no other president could have inspired it.
It's at this point that Taft's story becomes a cautionary tale of a man trapped in a life that made him miserable.
It was said that he never wanted to be president -- he preferred the law over politics -- but was pressured into it by Teddy Roosevelt, whom he had served as secretary of war. Taft's way of coping with his unhappiness was to eat as much as he could get his hands on, and he was enabled by all those around him.
What seems like a dream come true for many of us was in reality a nightmare that nearly ended in a premature death for Taft. Apparently he was not a drinker, but just imagine if he had been.
Losing the election in 1912 was a blessing for Taft because a second term almost certainly would have killed him. Instead, less than a year after leaving the White House, Taft made up his mind to get healthy. Through diet and exercise, he proceeded to drop some 80 pounds. By 1921, Taft finally got the job he really wanted when President Warren G. Harding appointed him chief justice.
As I stand on a bathroom scale today, seeing that I now weigh 80 pounds more than I did when I was a senior in high school, I realize that William Howard Taft, whose presidency made him somewhat of a national joke, should be an inspiration to us all -- at least in his post-presidency.
The moral of the story is: Get healthy so you can stick around long enough to achieve your dreams.
Paul Guggenheimer is host of "Essential Pittsburgh" on 90.5 WESA, the NPR affiliate in Pittsburgh.