William Howard Taft didn’t deserve to become Nationals’ 5th Racing President

Robert McCartney
Columnist March 30, 2013

When the popular Racing Presidents step onto the baseball field Monday for Opening Day at Nationals Park, a newcomer will join the original four mascots whose contests enliven the fourth inning.

He doesn’t deserve to be there.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

C’mon, William Howard Taft? If you’re going to honor a former commander in chief by creating a 12-foot foam puppet in his image, then surely you could pick someone more impressive.

In history’s standings, Taft is 20 games out of first place.

The original four Racing Presidents — Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt — are on Mount Rushmore. Taft doesn’t merit being on a pebble.

Imagine an exchange in the stands when the racers trot out for what announcers call “the main event”:

Child: “Daddy, I know Abe freed the slaves and Tom wrote the Declaration of Independence, but what did the new guy, Bill, do?”

Father (after a quick Google search on his iPhone): “Um, he strengthened the Interstate Commerce Commission.”

“What’s that?”

“He also lowered tariffs. Modestly.”

“I think I’ll keep rooting for Teddy.”

Taft’s girth provides his main claim to presidential fame. At 340 pounds on a 6-foot frame, he was our fattest POTUS. But the choicest anecdote about Taft’s weight — that he once got stuck in the White House bathtub and it took six men to yank him out — isn’t true.

“It’s a good story, but I haven’t found anything definitive yet [to prove it], and I’ve been working here for 27 years,” said Ray Henderson, chief of interpretation at the National Historic Site at Taft’s birthplace in Cincinnati.

Also contrary to lore: Taft did not invent the seventh-inning stretch. Why pick a president for whom the best stories are apocryphal?

All four of the original Racing Presidents won reelection. Taft came in third (in 1912) in the worst drubbing ever suffered by an incumbent president.

“There’s nothing great that came out of his presidency,” Henderson said. “For any one-term president, it’s tough.”

Consider a 2010 survey by the Siena Research Institute in New York. It asked 238 presidential scholars and specialists to rank the 43 presidents on 20 criteria ranging from domestic and foreign accomplishments to integrity and intelligence.

Taft placed 24th. Bottom half of the class.

The other four Racing Presidents placed second through fifth. Teddy was No. 2, followed by Abe, George and Tom.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was No. 1, of course. By merit, he unquestionably should have been the fifth racer. He led the nation through the Great Depression and to victory in World War II. That counts for a tad more than Taft’s antitrust suit against U.S. Steel.

Admittedly, a mascot portraying the polio-stricken FDR would have had to race in a wheelchair. It could have been a gutsy gesture toward inclusiveness.

If Nationals management wasn’t ready for that, however, then how about James Madison? A key architect of the Constitution, he was No. 6 on the Siena list.

Or, for a modern candidate, what about No. 10 Dwight D. Eisenhower? He defeated Hitler on the Western Front, built the interstate highway system and warned us about the military-industrial complex.

Taft’s résumé does boast two unique accomplishments. He started the presidential custom of throwing out the first pitch on Opening Day. Good for him. And he’s the only president who also served as chief justice of the United States.

But these are the Racing Presidents. If the Nats want to add the Racing Chief Justices, then let Taft scamper against John Marshall, Earl Warren and, er, uh, (checking Wikipedia) John Jay!

Considering the percentage of lawyers in a typical Nats crowd, it’s actually a reasonable suggestion.

Nats management is tight-lipped over its rationale for choosing Taft. Officially — I’m not kidding — it says the Teddy mascot “picked” Taft. That parallels the real Roosevelt’s selection of Taft as his designated successor for the 1908 election.

Perhaps the plan is for Teddy and “Bill” to have a falling out and become rivals in the races, just as they did in the 1912 election. That’s when Roosevelt was so appalled by Taft’s poor performance in office that he decided to challenge him.

The two split the Republican vote, opening the way for victory by Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

It’s hard to imagine that young fans will get too excited about a century-old political breakup triggered by differences over business regulatory policy.

What a lame decision. I hope Taft trips on that goofy mustache.

For previous Robert McCartney columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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