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Next PagePrevious Page Anecdotes about Taft and Sleeping

Many people witnessed Taft's inopportune sleeping. Their accounts were invaluable in making the diagnosis of sleep apnea 100 years after the fact.

This page presents several of those accounts, by persons close to Taft.

Nellie Taft, Archie Butt, Senator James Watson, Dr. William Osler, Taft's Cabinet
Mrs. Taft Maj. Butt Senator Watson Physicians Others

Mrs. Taft

In her 395-page autobiography, Nellie Taft refers to her husband only as "Mr. Taft."

It is, therefore, no surprise that her memoirs are universally described as "guarded" and that she is the source for only a few incidents.

In the incidents she does describe, Mr. Taft's sleepiness is usually interpreted as unflappability.

  • In 1900 Taft slept through a thunderous, terrifying typhoon in the Philippines, leaving Nellie in darkness to deal with the chaos. Ten years later, she was still upset.
  • During the typhoon she describes a single "gentle snore" coming from Mr. Taft. She does not describe him snoring at other times, nor does she hint that her sleep is ever disturbed by snoring.
    Several other witnesses, however, describe Taft snoring while sitting up. It is, therefore, very likely that Taft was a prolific snorer while lying down, with what consequences for Mrs. Taft we can only guess.
    For at least some of the time in the Philippines and in the White House, she and Mr. Taft had separate bedrooms.
  • Taft was sent literally around the world while Secretary of War. In late 1907 the Tafts visited Siberia. It was winter:
    At Irkutsk she had an experience that she often described in later years at dinner parties. ... In moving to a different train one of the [Russian] officers meeting the Tafts at this stop whisked her away in a sleigh driven by two Orlovs [a breed of horse]. He wished to show her the sights. It was a bitterly cold, moonlit night and the pace of the horses alarmed Mrs. Taft, who thought they had bolted. [Another member of the Taft party] tried to follow but soon lost sight of the sleigh. They did a thorough tour and then her host took her to his house to meet his wife. On her return Nellie expected to find Will in a panic over her absence; instead he was peacefully asleep.
  • A fierce snowstorm occurred the night before Taft's inauguration. Mrs. Taft's dress for the Inaugural Ball "was being made in New York, and was to be hand-delivered to the White House. Transportation was disrupted by the storm, and the messenger had not arrived. Mrs. Taft was frantic. To make matters worse, instead of sympathizing with her, the President calmly sat down and took a nap."
  • As First Lady, Mrs. Taft was criticized for her interest and participation in her husband's political discussions. At least one White House employee thought she participated "to protect her husband from ridicule over his sleeping habits."
    Backstairs, the servants knew that she was trying to keep the President awake by prodding him when she saw him drifting off -- something that no one else would dare do. They felt sorry for her. Sometimes she would carry on the conversation for him, for she was a brilliant woman, and she did know his views.
  • It appears that Taft's sleeping was more trying to his wife than to himself.
    The President had a strange habit of falling asleep when the First Lady was not there to keep after him. ... He fell asleep at the most peculiar times, even once at a funeral. Guests would be embarrassed when he would fall asleep in the middle of their stories, and poor Mrs. Taft would have to cover for him. Sometimes, when they were alone, she would scold him for this bad habit. ... "Now, Nellie, you know it is just my way," he would reply.
Mrs. Taft was extremely intelligent and politically astute. Had she not suffered a stroke three months after moving into the White House, Taft's Presidency might have been different. Ultimately she recovered from the stroke, and lived into her 80s.

  Major Butt
Taft's military aide, Major Archibald Butt, left a detailed account of life inside the Taft White House.

Butt was of several minds about Taft's tendency to sleep. Early on, he thought Taft's ability to catch "cat naps" was an asset. Later, Butt became seriously concerned over Taft's sleepiness. He implored Taft to see a specialist, but was rebuffed.

Butt's letters provide the richest trove of anecdotes related to Taft's sleep apnea.

  Senator Watson
James Watson of Indiana, later to be Senate Majority Leader, was on familiar terms with Taft: "I literally loved Taft. He was one of the finest men that ever lived anywhere."

Watson agreed, however, that Taft's administration was a "disappointment." He was convinced that "a fact that had considerable to do with the situation [was] that Taft ate too much. [Taft] kept his system so filled with undigested food and, consequently, toxic poison, that most of the time he simply did not and could not function in alert fashion."

Watson cites the following examples :

  • "Often when I was talking to him after a meal his head would fall over on his breast and he would go sound asleep for ten or fifteen minutes. He would waken and resume the conversation, only to repeat the performance in the course of half an hour or so."
    As recounted in , the White House butler would leave the last few courses of dinner in front of the sleeping Taft rather than awaken him. The doorman, who was the last servant to leave, would eventually collect the dishes.
  • "I recall that Colonel George B. Lockwood, of Indiana, and I were there for luncheon one day. ... The Colonel and I could not help noticing how inordinately Taft ate and therefore were not surprised when, after the luncheon and in the 'Red Room,' he went sound asleep while we were talking to him. I said to the Colonel: 'George, you sit here and keep an eye on the administration while I go out to the park to witness a game between New York and Washington,' whereupon I tiptoed out and left Colonel Lockwood sitting guard over the somnolent President."
  • On one occasion, Senator Watson told a just-awakened Taft: "Mr. President, you are the largest audience that I ever put entirely to sleep in all my political experience." Taft "laughed heartily and took no umbrage whatever."

  • Taft had a warm friendship with the greatest physician in the English-speaking world, William Osler. Osler was aware of a link between sleepiness and severe obesity , but there is no record he ever advised Taft of a problem.
  • The only physician known to have appreciated Taft's illness was Dr. James Marsh Jackson, a private practitioner in Massachusetts. (Taft's summer vacations as President were in Massachusetts.) Archie Butt recorded: "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." Jackson advised Taft to lose weight. There is no record of Jackson's concern reaching White House physicians. Butt did not publicize Jackson's findings.

  • There is evidence that Taft's Secretary of the Navy, George von Lengerke Meyer, had concerns about Taft's sleepiness. No record of his comments exist, however, and there is no record of concerns from other members of Taft's Cabinet.
  • Ira Smith ran the White House mailroom for 50 years. He wrote: "But of the nine Presidents under whom I served, from McKinley to Truman, the most puzzling and in some ways the most disliked during his term was William Howard Taft. This was not due to any lack of charm or intelligence on the part of Mr. Taft. To the public he was a fat, good-natured, smiling man whose administration was not especially bad. But inside the White House he was unhappy; his feet hurt, he overate, and he often fell asleep and snored at his desk."
  • The writer Henry Adams had a pre-Presidential acquaintance with Taft. The two had a chance street encounter in January 1912, Taft's third year in office. Adams wrote:
    [Taft] gave me a shock. He looks bigger and more tumble-to-pieces than ever, and his manner has become more slovenly than his figure; but what struck me most was the deterioration of his mind and expression. [He] is ripe for a stroke. He shows mental enfeeblement all over, and I wanted to offer him a bet that he wouldn't get through his term.

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Last modified 15:29 Pacific on 21 Jun 2004.