A president with the heart of a goof

by Al Pastor

Almost exactly 100 years ago to the day, the President played golf. It was hardly an isolated incident. A self-described “great lover of golf,” William Howard Taft considered the game “part of my necessities and a real enjoyment.” A damning paper trail of letters to his wife confirms what P.G. Wodehouse might have clearly recognized as the symptoms of what he called a “goof.”

Taft dutifully recorded his scores. He shared them with his wife with brief, unfailingly candid commentary. Often he couldn’t hide a tinge of Charlie Brown resignation. He positively bristled with hope over the arrival of new clubs. If he played poorly but managed to come out ahead in a match, he was still disgusted. The quest for improvement was a regular theme of the private correspondence with wife Helen (detailed in Lewis Gould’s My Dearest Nellie, University Press of Kansas, 2011). No, there can be little doubt his allegiance and enthusiasm was genuine.

“Main diversion”

Taft did other things. He rode horseback, reveled in the newly invented automobile, threw out the first pitch at the World Series and watched college football. But golf, he professed, was his “main diversion.” It routinely appeared on his schedule. Played against a backdrop of criticism of the general sort recognizable to his golfing successors, it’s worth keeping in mind the then newness and unfamiliarity of golf to most Americans in the early 1900s. Taft stood up for the old Scottish game, and was willing to take it on the chin from no less than Theodore Roosevelt, who, from several letters that remain, was clearly not on board. TR’s physical vigor also only accentuated the disparity with his successor. Big Bill arrived at the White House in the range of 350 pounds. Imagine current New Jersey governor Chris Christie newly elected president immediately succeeding, say, John Kennedy, and you get the idea. To the often pointed barbs, Taft responded by speaking openly about his affection, even giving stump speeches extolling golf’s virtues, talking it up, “first of all,” he noted in one, was “self-restraint…mental discipline and ethical training.” The game would represent one of a number of what historian Dr. Lewis Gould typified as “divisions of temperament” that would cause problems between Taft and TR.

“Personal crusade”

Taft’s golf was, to quote Dr. Gould, no less than a “personal crusade.” The new president did enjoy something of a golf (and weight) honeymoon after his election, but in time golf “came,” leveled another critic, “to symbolize his aloofness from ordinary individuals.” Cartoonists had their fun. (I haven’t even mentioned the cartoon catnip of his allegedly getting stuck in the White House bathtub. The irrepressible ‘Mr. Dooley’ summed up a caricatured golfing Taft professing: “Golf is th’ thing I like best next t’ leavin’ Washington!” Roosevelt thought it aristocratic.

Heart of a duffer

To the modern golf sympathizer reviewing his private correspondence, the “bubble puppy” golfer (as he once called himself) displays an amiable and admirable duffer’s humility. It’s entirely likely that the criticism only hardened Taft’s resolve and interest. He needed, and regularly received strokes (another Presidential golf precedent). He was not very good, as he readily conceded. (“I get a great deal of fun out of golf,” he wrote in July, 1912, “but I don’t think I can play any better at all.”) When complications arose from the weather, or from the unceasing demands of office, and he could not escape to play, it was always noted in his letters to wife Helen with regret. Even the oppressive Washington heat couldn’t completely quell the golf urge. “It is so hot here,” he wrote in July, 1911, “that I am not inclined to play golf this afternoon though I should like to do so.”

He used it as recreation,” Dr. Gould told me recently. “He tried to play every day, if he could. He also used it as a way of courting some politicians. [Those in favor got invitations to play, while others were not invited.], though it had a double-edged sword for him as the places he played tended to be of the wealthy, so sometimes people criticized him of being aloof and consorting only with the rich, which he bitterly resented as an attack. But he told his military aid Archie Butt that he needed to play just to release the rigors of the presidency.”

Under-appreciated

An under-appreciated aspect to Taft’s golf deserves illumination, particularly in view of a spate of recent, surprisingly favorable, publicity. This mirrors his more obvious political obscurity. As one of his most articulate modern biographers concedes, Taft has “languished as a subject for editorial attention,” especially compared to the presidents who bookmark him on either end, Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

A simple declarative hope is central to understanding the role golf played in Taft’s life, one that should resonate so many years later, even if his conclusion is open to question. “This playing golf every afternoon,” he wrote, “keeps me in excellent condition.”

Corpulence and Correspondence

Oddly enough, Taft has been in the news. The Washington Nationals waddled out a Taft figure. His great-grandson James, despairing over the state of internecine GOP politics, declared in a New York Times Op-ed column that he was a “genetic Republican.” (No mention of his golf.) There was also news of a Panama Canal expansion, an effort that Will Taft could appreciate first hand.

These were just coincidences. The initial Taft sighting, which sent me to bother the eminent historian Dr. Gould, a Taft aficionado, was a series of articles in the popular press, on the 27th president’s battles with his weight. For perhaps the first time, a source of political mirth has gotten a reappraisal.

Deborah Levine, a medical historian at Providence College, sifted through his correspondence in Library of Congress. She distilled a fascinating regular exchange between a Harley Street doctor in London and the future president. Taft, it seems, has a most modern fixation with his weight. Perhaps that’s why, I suggested to Dr. Gould, the distinguished historian with a special affinity for Taft, and the author of several books about him, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, why Big Bill, much maligned, is finally, after all these years getting a little sympathy from an obese America.

“Poor President Taft,” Dr. Gould responded. “He’s probably the most fat president other than Grover Cleveland and the struggles with his weight have been dissected – if that’s the right word – ad nauseum.” He agreed the scrutiny, and rare positive press, may say as much about us as it does about him.

Dr. Levine’s article appears in the October Annals of Internal Medicine. It set off a flurry of press. The New York Times, Washington Post, ABC News, USA Today, wrote about the article, highlighting specifics of his low-carb diet prescribed by Nathaniel Yorke-Davies, along with the daily struggles of an obese executive. Dozens of letters reveal the extent of the concern, down to noting his daily weight, even his bowel movements. What struck me is there is only one mention of Taft’s exercise regimen before he entered the White House, and during – one, as suggested above, he had no trouble sticking with. This, of course, was in the days before the odious golf cart. Taft walked, and in one letter compliments himself and his group for getting around in 9-holes (at match play) in about two hours. Yorke-Davies includes, according to Levine, just this one pat on the back: “I am very glad to hear that you take a fair amount of exercise as this is so important.”

The article is available to the reader free online. There’s just one last point about Taft’s golf that I think bears emphasizing. It will strike a chord with any golfer taking lessons.

Dr. Gould laughed when he told me that if Taft “could’ve shot 85, I think his life would’ve been complete.” He regularly broke 100, but shot just a handful of rounds below 90. “I tend to believe presidents should have the recreation that they want,” Dr. Gould said, echoing a point I’ve long held. “I sympathize with these people in all that they face and if that’s the way they find some solace, calm and recreation, I say, hey go to it.”

What I find most heart-warming about Taft’s golfing struggles is detailed in several letters to his wife. He happened to play with George Sargent, an early U.S. Open winner, and as has happened many times since, the “expert” tried to share a few tips. As they often will, the tips landed fairly with a thud.

“I went out yesterday and played golf with the golf again with the expert Sargent,” he wrote Helen, “but I was off yesterday – off because of all his suggestions, which I tried to follow. You cannot follow new suggestions without injuring your game for a little while. I think he has taught some things that will improve me, but for the time being they run the score up.”

Poor President Taft.

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