Sleep Apnea
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Next PagePrevious Page Butt's Descriptions

Major Archibald Butt, known universally as Archie, was Taft's closest aide. He regularly wrote confidential letters to his sister-in-law about doings at the Taft White House. They were published after Taft's death .

Butt died aboard SS Titanic in April 1912. He was returning from a European vacation taken at Taft's insistence. Butt is credited with helping maintain order during evacuation of the ship, thereby saving many lives.

Butt's letters cover only the first three years of Taft's Presidency. The excerpts below mention manifestations of Taft's sleep apnea.

Letter of March 21, 1909 . Taft had been President for less than three weeks.

He has marvelous powers of physical endurance, and he keeps one engagement after another with wonderful promptitude and with little evidence of wear on the nervous tissue.

He has the faculty of sleeping sitting up, and while this may indicate some trouble somewhere in his great bulk, I am inclined to think it indicative rather of a phlegmatic temperament. It certainly comes to his assistance just now when he has little opportunity to rest save as he can catch these little cat naps on trains and between interviews. He went fast asleep sitting at the White House last night when Speaker Cannon was talking to him, and this, too, when the Speaker was leaning over his chair and talking most earnestly on behalf of [Indiana congressman] Jim Watson.

More from the letter of March 21, 1909 .
After the meeting we went to a luncheon at [Yale] President Hadley's, and coming back in the train the President went to one room to dictate his speech, but was tired and slept most of the way back, sitting upright.
Letter of May 4, 1909 . Taft was recovering from a cold.
The President tried to pose [for the portrait-painter] for a little while, but he was very tired and very weak. He fell asleep twice while standing up, and sat in a chair for a minute and was sound asleep.

While Mrs. Taft seems to be growing younger, he seems to be growing so much older. I looked at his face in repose and saw lines there, deep, deep lines, which I had never noticed before.

Letter of May 12, 1909
[At the funeral of Congressman John Dalzell's wife] I gave my chair next [to] the President to [Supreme Court Justice Edward D.] White. In the midst of the services I saw the President fall asleep, and I stood horrified when I heard an incipient snore. I could not wake him up, I was not near enough to him, and just as I had about made up my mind to walk over to him to arouse him for fear he would fall into heavy snores, Justice White fell asleep also, and I let them remain so, for had either snored loudly I made up my mind to lay it to the justice when comment was made of the incident. It taught me a lesson; I shall not absent myself from his side again at such a time, for it is my duty, as I construe my duty, to protect him from such situations as to guard his person from anarchists.
Letter of Aug. 6, 1909
The President was waiting anxiously for news [of the House's vote on the tariff bill], and while he said he would go to his room and sleep he was unable to lose consciousness even for a cat nap, and it is the first time I have ever seen him show any excitement save the hour before his first state dinner at the House, on which occasion he confessed to nervousness.
Letter of Nov. 14, 1909 , showing that Taft could stay up late:
I think he is a more selfish man than I had suspected. I have come in from a hard day's work worn out and then been sent for to play bridge until one and two o'clock in the morning. The fact that I would go to sleep at the table would not cause him to quit until he would get sleepy.

[Note: Other letters, e.g. Mar. 21, 1910 , contain similar late-night complaints from Butt.]

Letter of Jan. 29, 1910
He is so tired that he cannot resist any microbe, however small.
Letter of Feb. 24, 1910
The New York papers all spoke of the President's tired look, and commented on the fact that he looks much older than he did six months ago and has lost much of his joyous and happy manner.
Letter of Easter 1910
The President looks very badly, I am beginning to think myself. He is white-looking, and his pallor does not seem healthy.
Letter #1 of Sept. 29, 1910
We did not get up from the table until half-past ten, and then the President wanted some music from the Victor. Mr. Wickersham presided over this instrument and made the selections. The President went to sleep sitting upright before the first piece was concluded and never woke up but once, and then asked for the Prize Song. Before we got it started he was asleep again and never heard a note of it. In fact, he greatly marred its effect by snoring noisily through it.

The Attorney General picked out the Sextette and laughed when he put it on the machine -- "for," he said, "it will wake anyone but a dead man." At its conclusion he whispered to me:

"He must be dead."

We did not wake him, and so we kept on grinding out this canned music until five minutes to twelve, when I let something fall, which woke him up, and he hurriedly said good-night.

Letter #2 of Sept. 29, 1910
[At 1 a.m.] the President came out of the Green Room. He at once sat down and began to damn the press. ...

After this burst of temper, which he laughed over himself, he fell asleep, and I woke him once, but no one else liked to do so, so that it was after two o'clock when he finally roused himself and begged our pardons and went to bed.

Letter of Oct. 10, 1910
I told [Dr. Jackson] how the President had a way of dropping to sleep as he was writing or playing cards, and he shook his head in such a way as to cause chills to run up and down my spinal column. ... I then urged upon [Jackson] the utmost secrecy in turn in regard to this matter, and I tried to bring to his mind the result of the condition of the country should such a state of affairs become known -- to say nothing of the fatal results to the President's political future if any hint of invalidism should even be whispered. He said he would not mention it to anyone.
Letter of Apr. 20, 1911
We have had two terrible days of social activity. ... How Mrs. Taft stands the strain is more than I can see. The President stands it because, as I have had occasion to remark before, he has no nerves and sleeps while the rest stay awake. He has no conscience about taking naps when he is tired. If sleep overpowers him while he is talking to the Chief Justice or anyone else, he promptly closes his eyes and takes cat naps between sentences.
Letter of Apr. 20, 1911
It is near midnight and we have just returned from the opera. ... The French ambassador occupied the box next to the President, and during the entr'actes he came in and with his breezy conversation helped matters out materially. So the President took naps only during the performance, when it was dark and he could not be seen. It is always embarrassing to have him fall asleep in the full glare of the lights.
Letter of May 1, 1911
Yesterday afternoon I went motoring with the President and Mrs. Taft. We went on the Potomac driveway, the first time we have driven there this spring. Every Japanese cherry which Mrs. Taft planted last year had flowered, and very soon, when the trees get a little larger, they are going to make a startling avenue in the early spring. Mrs. Taft actually clapped her hands in delight when she saw the cherry blossoms. Even the President waked up [sic] from his lethargy to show his pleasure in them.
Letter of May 16, 1911
He is a poor reader and never spends an evening with his books unless there is something of specific nature he wants to get out of them. If he is left alone, he soon gets tired and goes to sleep.
Letter of May 20, 1911
After dinner we went on the back veranda [of the White House], where I smoked and the President and the Chief Justice drank White Rock and continued to talk. Later we went motoring through the Park and back by way of the White home on Rhode Island Avenue, where the Chief Justice got out. The President and I continued to drive for another hour. I went where the spirit moved me, for the President went fast asleep and never woke up until we arrived at the White House.
Letter of Nov. 27, 1911
The President decided to quit his own church and to go to Epiphany to hear Dr. Randolph McKim preach on the peace treaties. ... Mrs. Taft went with us, and she and the President sat in one pew, and [Secret Service Agent] Jimmy Sloan and I in the pew behind them. ...

The ritual of the church, getting up and sitting down, kept the President awake, but not even his beloved peace could keep him awake after the sermon began and the Reverend Doctor got well launched into statistics. I never accompany him to his regular church in Washington, but Jimmy Sloan tells me that he invariably sleeps through the sermon. I think he had better not go to church at all. It does not make so much difference for him to cat nap in his own church, but when he strays into the real faith he ought to keep awake. I had not suspected that he was asleep until I heard an audible snore, and then I punched him, and he woke with such a start as to attract the attention of everybody around him. Then, as I would see him dozing, or Jimmy, who got a side glimpse of him, indicated that he was again off to dreamland, I resorted to my old trick of having a spell of coughing. He knows what that means, and it straightens him out for a time.

The people around me yesterday must have thought me a consumptive, for I had to keep it going throughout the long, tiresome sermon.

Letter of Feb. 9, 1912
The President is looking very badly. I told him I wanted to talk to him about something most important. He told me to fire away, and I spoke to him about his health. He looks terribly. His flesh looks like wax, and his lips are thin, and he is getting those unhealthy bags under his eyes. I begged him to see a specialist, for I felt sure that all his drowsiness was due to some toxin in his system.... His response was a slap on the back, followed by: "Archie, you go to hell! I will not be hauled around by specialists! [Secretary of the Navy] Meyer has been talking to you, I know."

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