I’m giving a virtual talk at the Library of Alexandria on September 22nd for National Constitution Week. (Still working out my media appearances for that week, but it sounds like many of the places I spoke to last year, including the National Constitution Center, are making those appearances available on their sites and socials.) On October 7th, I’ll be in conversation with Dr. Keisha Blain, a New York Times bestselling author, about her new biography on Fannie Lou Hammer, Until I Am Free.
It took six of the strongest men on White House grounds, the story goes, to wrest William Howard Taft’s substantial body out of the bathtub...and that humiliating story is often the only thing people remember him for.
Taft did not need to be pried out of the bathtub. He preferred them, it’s true, but there was no nightly fiasco when it was time for bed. There’s not a single historic news article or magazine story, eyewitness, or gumshoe historian who has said otherwise.
There’s origin of this story is a secondhand account written 47 years after Taft left the White House by Lillian Rogers Parks, whose mother worked for Taft. And in the memoir 42 Years in the White House, Irwin Hoover, a White House usher during the administration, vaguely refers to Taft’s need to be helped out of the bath. That’s it. That’s where we got the apocryphal story that President Taft got stuck in the bath.
Those two accounts don’t mention the use of butter, at least six men, or any of the other invention that Mac Barnett, a popular children’s book author, introduced to a new generation of readers in 2014. As I wrote in the Times, Barnett and his illustrator, Chris Van Dusen, delight in fat shaming:
In “President Taft is Stuck in the Bath,” Taft isn’t just overweight, but morbidly obese, red-faced and stark naked, with ample rolls of flesh protruding from every imaginable location on his unwieldy body, overflowing out of a comparatively small bathtub. The secretary of agriculture, summoned to advise the quadruple-chinned president, suggests they grease up everything up with butter. It’s deeply uncomfortable to look at, no less imagine giving to a small child, along with an implicit lesson: It’s okay to laugh at fat people.
Barnett knows Taft didn’t get stuck in the bath. He said there’s no proof in interviews, despite using comparatively vague language in the book: “Of course, many people say Taft never got stuck in the bath.”
This falsehood dominates Taft’s legacy in popular culture, which is tragic not only because of what it says about us, but what it doesn’t say about Taft. He wasn’t just the 27th president of the United States. He was the 10th chief justice of the United States. Taft is the only president to have served in the executive and judicial branches of the United States federal government. So, history cranks and fiends, I have a request: Take this message to the streets. School your group chats, post to socials, and work it into conversations.
Happy Birthday, Mr. President.
On a related note: