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15 Facts About William Howard Taft

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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.” 

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On This Day in 1933, FDR Gave His First Fireside Chat
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On March 12, 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave his first "fireside chat" on the radio. It was just eight days after his inauguration. He began: "I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking." Citizens across the nation tuned in to listen.

During the depths of the Great Depression, FDR took to the airwaves to explain to Americans why there had been a recent, ahem, "bank holiday." After a series of bank failures, FDR closed all U.S. banks on March 6, to prevent them from failing as panicked citizens tried to withdraw their holdings. While the banks were closed, a program of federal deposit insurance was created in order to insure the stability of the banks when they reopened.

So imagine, if you will, that your bank has been closed for six days, banks are failing left and right, and the newly-inaugurated president gets on the radio to talk about the situation. You would likely listen, and you'd want a really solid answer. That's just what Americans got.

It was a stunning moment, a roughly 13-minute speech in which the American president spoke directly to the people and asked them to understand how banks work. As an extension of that understanding, he asked people to trust what he and Congress were doing to resolve the problem. While the chat didn't solve the country's financial problems overnight, it did create a remarkable sense of connection between FDR and the citizenry, and it helped prevent a complete collapse of the banking system.

FDR's "fireside chats" (the phrase was coined by press secretary Stephen Early, conveying the intimacy of communication) were among the best examples of a president using mass media to bring a time-sensitive message to the American people. He would go on to do 29 more chats over the course of his long presidency.

So if you've never heard that first "fireside chat," take a few minutes and listen. Here it is with slightly cleaned-up audio:

If you're not into audio, just read the transcript. The text is a model of clear communication.

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The Only 4 Private Citizens to Lie in Honor at the U.S. Capitol
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Billy Graham, the most famous Christian preacher of the past century, died in his home on February 21 at age 99. As a noted spiritual advisor of U.S. presidents, he held a special position of influence in American history. Now, he's being granted another privilege extended to very few Americans: This week, his body will lay in honor in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.

From February 28 to March 1, members of the public will be invited to visit the Capitol and pay their respects to the late reverend. It's an honor that has been bestowed upon only 33 Americans since the tradition began with Henry Clay in 1852. Of the distinguished citizens who have "lain in state," 11 were U.S. presidents. Several elected officials and military officials have also been commemorated under the rotunda, but only three private citizens—and with Graham, four—have their names among their ranks.

The first two private citizens to lie in honor were Capitol Police officers Jacob Chestnut and John Gibson. Both were killed in the line of duty during the Capitol shooting incident in 1998.

The third private citizen to receive the distinction was Rosa Parks. She died in 2005, 50 years after refusing to give up her seat on a bus for a white passenger, thus helping set the civil rights movement in motion. So far, she's the only woman whose body has lain in honor at the U.S. Capitol.

Congress chooses which individuals get to receive the honor, either by passing a resolution or having congressional leadership obtain permission from the surviving family. When Graham's body arrives at the Capitol this week, it will be displayed on the same platform used to support Lincoln's body and that of every person (except the two police officers) who has lain in the rotunda since 1865.



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