Out of Our Past: Taft campaigned in Richmond during bid for office he didn't really want

On the evening of Oct. 23, 1908, William Howard Taft stumped for the presidency of the United States at Richmond’s Pennsylvania Depot after visiting Cambridge City.

The Evening Item reported that thousands of residents packed North 10th and E, jamming the streets, sitting on railroad trucks, billboards, rooftops, in windows and i in “passenger coaches.”

A profusion of “flags, pennants and bunting” stretched across windows and on tops of warehouses along the street and at the Adam H. Bartel Company (now The Italian Market) directly across from the speaker’s stand.

Taft mounted the platform humbly. “It is a great pleasure for me to come to Richmond. From my earliest boyhood, I recollect this place as one of the earliest homes of abolitionism. My father was an abolitionist and regarded Richmond as the most important place in Indiana.”

Taft was seeking election in wake of President Teddy Roosevelt, and being groomed in Roosevelt’s “man of brawn” image, though Taft shared little with that ideal, being lethargic, overweight and insecure.

The Evening Item carried a short, dubious biography: “In early politics, Bill Taft’s girth bore him well. There were days when political feeling ran high in Ohio and election fights were by no means free from blood-ship. It was in the midst of one of these election rows that young Taft met bullies at their own game, and there are men still living in Cincinnati who can testify to the steam behind his sledge-like fists…There is the oft-told legend of his trouncing a scurrilous editor by the name of Rose, who printed in his paper a story basely reflecting Bill’s father, Alphonso. This fellow was known as a scrapper… with superior fighting abilities. Bill Taft, however, looked him up, knocked him down, bumped his head upon the ground a while, and let him up with the assurance that if they should meet in town the next day or any day later the treatment would be repeated.”

►MORE OUT OF OUR PAST: Teddy Roosevelt paid at least 6 visits to Richmond - but slept through 1

Taft was six feet tall and weighed close to 350 pounds, the largest person ever to run for the presidency. A newsman described him as “an American bison – but a gentle, kind one.”

Once in the White House, Taft often got stuck in the bathtub and his advisers had to pull him out. Prying the president of the United States from the bathtub was embarrassing, so a much larger tub with room for as many as four people was installed.

Secretly Taft did not want to be commander-in-chief. His frequently expressed motto was “Politics make me sick.”

Out of Our Past: Taft campaigned in Richmond during bid for office he didn't really want

His mother recognized his distaste for politics, but his wife didn’t.

Taft’s wife, Nellie, had visited the White House as a young girl and her life’s ambition was to live there. The woman behind the man wanted the White House and Taft openly admitted, “I consider obedience the first virtue of a husband.”

In the end, Taft’s mother proved right.

William Howard Taft became the 27th President of the United States, and hardly any other President was as unhappy in office as he was.

He was the first U.S. president to play golf and the first president to switch his primary mode of transportation to a combustion engine automobile.

When he left office in 1913, he told incoming President Woodrow Wilson, “I’m glad to be going. This is the lonesomest place in the world.”

As president, Taft did have achievements. His administration pursued twice as many anti-trust lawsuits as Roosevelt’s. He expanded the powers of the Interstate Commerce Commission in the regulation of telephone, radio and cable services. The Publicity Act of 1910 forced political parties to publicize sources of campaign funds in full disclosure. His administration set aside over 72 million acres of public lands for conservation. He introduced the eight-hour workday for work on federal projects. He proposed the 16th Amendment to the Constitution that stipulated, “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.”

It was ratified during his presidency and passed on Feb. 3, 1913.

After the presidency Taft adopted stricter-eating habits and played more golf; he shed much of his access weight and his health improved immeasurably.

In 1921, he was appointed to the Supreme Court; many thought he made a better judge than he did a president. He was certainly happier in that position.

But when he spoke in Richmond and Cambridge City, he never revealed attaining the White House was his wife’s dream, not his.

Contact columnist Steve Martin at stephenmonroemartin@gmail.com.