I’d like to modestly propose that Presidents Day is not sufficient to honor our 43 chief executives and all they’ve done for our country. I’ve been on a president-related roll the last few days, so even though it’s Wednesday going on Thursday, I’m issuing a retroactive proclamation that this is Presidents Week as far as this here URL is concerned.
With that business out of the way, here’s a president we should all get to know better: William Howard Taft. He served just one rather difficult term, nearly a century ago, and I think the most common impression of him now might be summed up by the question, “Wasn’t he the really big one?” Well, yes he was, tipping the scales at nearly 350 pounds when he left office — an all-time presidential weight record. But he was much more than that. He was also nearly 6 feet tall. He reportedly suffered from severe sleep apnea. He was the first president to own a car and is said to be the first to have been involved in a car wreck. He was the first president to throw out the season-opening “pitch” at a ball game. He loved golf and once hiked in Yosemite with John Muir. He was professionally versatile — he was secretary of War before he was elected, and after the voters sent him packing, he became the only president to also serve on the Supreme Court of the United States. And not just serve: He was chief justice.
One of his court highlights came in Olmstead v. United States, a landmark wiretapping case involving federal prohibition agents who had eavesdropped sans warrant on some Seattle bootleggers despite the fact the unapproved tap was against Washington state law. In Taft’s majority opinion, the violation of law was of no practical consequence, and the very nature of telephone technology made it fair game for unregulated police spying: “The reasonable view is that one who installs in his house a telephone instrument with connecting wires intends to project his voice to those quite outside, and that the wires beyond his house, and messages while passing over them, are not within the protection of the Fourth Amendment [prohibiting unreasonable searches and seizures].”
I like the phrase “telephone instrument.” Taft’s opinion was overturned a decade later. But he seems like the kind of guy who would fit right in with today’s big White House thinkers.