Ask your average citizen what he or she knows about President William Howard Taft and you’ll most likely hear recanted the rumor that due to his girth, Taft once became stuck in the White House bathtub. In the article, “Corpulence and Correspondence: President William H. Taft and the Medical Management of Obesity,” Providence College’s Deborah Levine analyzes fascinating primary sources from the Library of Congress—letters in which the 27th president of the United States corresponded with Dr. Nathaniel E. Yorke-Davies, an English diet expert—that chronicle Taft’s efforts to lose weight while in the harsh spotlight of American politics and popular culture. [If you haven’t read Monday’s New York Times coverage or the original article in the most recent issue of Annals of Internal Medicine, they’re marvelous. Go read them now!]
As Levine demonstrates, this correspondence reveals Taft’s own views of the relationship between obesity and personal character, as he aspired to lose weight not only “to combat uncomfortable symptoms” (565), but also to “become a better civil servant” (565), revealing the assumption that one’s weight informs both objectives. This perspective is reinforced by Taft’s repeated assertion that “No real gentleman weighs more than 300 pounds” (565). Standing 6 feet and 2 inches tall, Taft weighed 354 pounds on his inauguration day, 255 pounds after dieting with Yorke-Davies, and 280 pounds at his death.
Notably, this framing of Taft’s weight and his attempts to reduce it are in stark contrast to the story presented by many sources, including the Taft biography featured on the University of Virginia’s Miller Center website. In this instance, nearly half of a page devoted to Taft’s family life focuses on his “enormous size,” and claims, “At ease with his uncontrolled appetite and his need for sleep after eating or after exerting himself, Taft simply refused to be embarrassed by his weight or his behavior. He accepted his size and so did most of the American public in time.” Levine’s research calls such assertions into question.
Beyond his personal beliefs regarding obesity, Taft’s weight also affected his political career. Levine shows, “By the time that Taft, the nation’s heaviest president, was inaugurated in 1909, his appearance was a point of intense public concern and one that Taft had worked to address for years” (569). This concern often took the form of jokes, such as the aforementioned and long-lasting rumor that Taft became stuck in the White House bathtub, as well as editorial cartoons (such as the one to the left, published prior to the 1908 Republican National Convention) and newspaper articles. Levine argues that Taft pursued weight loss in order to counteract this view of his presidency, “plainly seeking relief from these tribulations” (569) by dieting with Yorke-Davies, perhaps most importantly because popular opinion of his weight “affected journalists’ opinion of his leadership ability” (569).
Levine asserts, “In choosing Yorke-Davies, a credentialed physician, over the many other sectarian or faddist sources of diet advice available at the time, Taft was exercising agency over how he wanted his obesity to be treated” (566). He wanted his obesity to be viewed and treated as a medical issue, a desire mirrored powerfully today, especially given the AMA’s recent recognition of obesity as a disease. In doing so, Levine argues, “Taft became symbolic of the medical management and struggles associated with sustaining long-term weight loss,” a symbolic role that “shap[ed] American relationships to obesity in the early 20th century” in which “a person’s weight and approach to diet was explicitly recast as an outward indicator of the health, vitality, self-control, and discipline, required to succeed and lead in the modern United States of America” (569).
Taft’s weight loss attempts provide historical roots to the current meaning of obesity in the United States, especially within the Oval Office. For example, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who weighed about the same amount as Taft prior to recent gastric-band surgery, is rumored to be trying to lose weight in order to run for president. At this point, Taft remains the only obese person to lead the nation. Levine’s important archival work and fascinating article provide historical evidence as to why this remains so.