The Progressive Era
|Digital History ID 3144|
Today, William Howard Taft is better known for his weight than for his presidency. The most corpulent president, he was 6-feet, 2-inches tall and weighed 330 pounds. A special bathtub was installed in the White House large enough to accommodate four average sized adults. When he was governor of the Philippines, he sent a cable that referred to a horseback ride he had taken into the mountains. The reply: "Referring to your telegram--how is the horse?"
Taft had served as a federal judge and as the appointed governor of the Philippines before Roosevelt named him secretary of war. However, his talents as administrator served him poorly as a president. He was perceived, wrongly, as a tool of entrenched interests. In 1930, he was appointed chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
As president, Taft had very substantial Progressive accomplishments. He filed twice as many anti-trust suits as Roosevelt, expanded Roosevelt's program of conserving public lands, created a Children's Bureau within the Labor Department, and pushed through Congress the Mann-Elkins Act of 1910, which strengthened the federal government's power to regulate the railroads. He also submitted a proposal for a tax on corporate income and called for a constitutional amendment to permit an income tax. The amendment was ratified in 1913 during the waning days of days of his administration.
Taft also fired Roosevelt's trusted lieutenant, Gifford Pinchot, who had attacked his conservation policies. He supported the reelection of Joe Cannon, the Republican old guard speaker of the House, in return for conservative support on other issues. He tried to lower tariffs on foreign trade, only to have his proposal gutted by Congress. Said Roosevelt of his successor:
Taft, who is such an admirable fellow, has shown himself such an utterly commonplace leader, good-natured, feebly well-meaning, but with plenty of small motive; and totally unable to grasp or put into execution any great policy.
Disenchanted with Taft and missing the glory of the presidency, Roosevelt challenged his successor for the 1912 presidential nomination. "We stand at Armageddon," said Roosevelt in 1912, "and we battle for the Lord."
During the campaign, Roosevelt called the president a "fathead" and a "puzzlewit" who was "dumber than a guinea pig." Roosevelt's remarks deeply embittered Taft. "Even a cornered rat will fight," he reported said to a journalist.
Roosevelt won most of the primaries, but lost a rules fight at the Republican convention, and won only a third of the delegates. Charging Taft with "hijacking" the nomination, Roosevelt launched a third party. As the Progressive Party candidate, Roosevelt received 27 percent of the vote--which today is still a record for a third-party presidential candidate. Taft only won 23 percent of the popular vote, partly due to his failure to publicize his progressive achievements.