As a result of the Spanish-American War in 1898, the United States gained possession of the Philippines and made it a territory. In 1901, President William McKinley appointed William Howard Taft as the first governor of the archipelago, and for three years Taft served the United States in this capacity. The Filipinos revered him and treated him with the utmost respect throughout his tenure, even if Elihu Root didn’t. The United States Secretary of War, and in fact his entire department, could never quite forget that Taft was morbidly obese.
When Taft assumed his duties as governor of the Philippines, he was an enormously corpulent man of forty-three years and 330 pounds. Wherever he went, he waved a friendly, cushioned palm and smiled with “enchanting sweetness.” His pale blue eyes were “squeezed between chuckling rolls of fat,” and merely to look at him was to be warmed and impressed — at least this was so for the Filipinos, if not for Elihu Root and his hirelings.
Gov. Taft went about his business at what was for him an easy pace. He lounged comfortably and spoke calmly in all circumstances. Although he was periodically drowsy from too much food, he was not lazy. Once he got under way, he had the ponderous momentum of an elephant. His gestures were slow, but full of power. He bore huge workloads with no complaint and always got the job done.
Notwithstanding the fact that he was grossly overweight, Taft was always on the move. Never one to sit in an office and review reports from the hinterland, he preferred to conduct his own, on-site inspections. That’s what set the stage for the indecorous barb thrown at him from Washington, D.C., in 1903 by Secretary Root.
Toward the end of his tenure as governor of the Philippines, Taft sent a message through State Department channels that he was undertaking an inspection tour on horseback, which would take several days. Secretary of War Root replied with mock concern, but it didn’t stop Taft. He pressed on to complete his task. Meanwhile the head of the War Department pretended to wring his hands in worry.
When Governor Taft returned to his headquarters, he cabled Washington that he had completed his inspection on horseback and had found everything in order. Secretary Root, however, wasn’t satisfied; He couldn’t resist the temptation to have some more fun at the expense of his governor. Picturing Taft — all 330 pounds of him — riding through the jungles upon a beast of burden.
Root sent a four-word inquiry: “How is the horse?” Delighted giggles at Taft’s expense were heard all over town, but the governor had the last laugh.
Within a month Root was dead of typhoid fever, and who do you suppose took his place as Secretary of War? William Howard Taft!
In an ironic twist in time, the overweight governor of the Philippines, who had been the constant butt of his boss’s jokes, took silent revenge, and Root’s giggling sycophants suddenly found themselves laughing from the other side of their mouths.