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A Big Year for 'Big Bill'

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In case you hadn't noticed, there was a resurgence of interest this past year in my great-grandfather, William Howard Taft, 27th President of the United States and the only President also to serve as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Most notably, of course, was Doris Kearns Goodwin's decision to let "Big Bill," as he was known, share center stage with Teddy Roosevelt in her recent best-selling book, The Bully Pulpit.

The reason, writes Goodwin in her Preface, "was the discovery that... William Howard Taft, was a far more sympathetic, if flawed, figure than I had realized."

About the same time Goodwin's book was published, the New York Times wrote a lengthy article about Taft's "startlingly contemporary" weight loss efforts, which included the employment of a "physical culture man" (the early 20th century equivalent of a personal trainer).

Earlier in the year, the Washington Nationals Major League Baseball team drafted Taft (that is to say, a mascot-like version of Taft) as its fifth "Racing President," giving him the Twitter handle @NatsBigChief27 (which has more than 4,000 followers) and pitting him against other presidential effigies of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt in foot races during the seventh inning stretch at Nats home games.

On President's Day last February, after a "Piers Morgan Tonight" segment on presidential descendants that included Michael Reagan, Margaret Hoover and me, the headlines the next day were about parallels between Taft and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie: "If you need a proof point of the fact that being a large individual is no impediment to serving in high office, [Taft] is that proof point."

All this on the heels of a recent novel, Taft 2012, based on the improbable premise that Taft is resurrected after 99 years to run again for President and an earlier historical biography of his wife, Nellie Taft, whom many consider the motivating influence behind Taft's reluctant agreement to succeed Teddy Roosevelt as President.

Why all the fuss about William Howard Taft?

I'll offer a couple of hypotheses. The first of which is that Taft's humanity continues to shine almost a century after his death.

That he struggled with obesity -- one of the most pressing health issues of our time -- makes him instantly relevant and sympathetic to the tens of millions of people who are struggling with their weight today.

Then there was his "affable disposition and genial companionship," as Goodwin describes it. This, combined with expectations for excellence on the part of his demanding father, Alphonso, ended up instilling a need for and "love of approval" that may have been Taft's "besetting fault" during his lifetime (his mother's words), but which seems endearing through the lens of history.

My second hypothesis is that Taft's re-emerging popularity has to do with his character.

Reading The Bully Pulpit, one can't help but be struck by how much more principled both Taft and Roosevelt appear in Goodwin's narrative than the Lilliputian, self-promoting politicians of today.

After Taft's inaugural speech as chairman of a new commission to govern the Philippines, Harper's Weekly was reported by Goodwin to have suggested "that when a man like Taft made promises, he could be believed." Harper's stated, "He is not a New York politician who would sacrifice his soul for office; he is not an anxious member of Congress who would promise anything to get a second term. He is Judge Taft and when we say that he is Judge Taft, we mean to imply that he represents all that is best in American manhood, involving integrity of character, a sane mind, and the loftiest of motives."

Midway through his tenure as President, my great-grandfather wrote, "To be a successful latter-day politician, it seems one must be a hypocrite.... That sort of thing is not for me. I detest hypocrisy, cant, and subterfuge. If I have got to think every time I say a thing, what effect is it going to have on the public mind -- if I have got to refrain from doing justice to a fair and honest man because what I may say may have an injurious effect on my own fortune -- I had rather not be president."

We yearn today for character in our leaders. We yearn for honesty and integrity. We yearn for a centered commitment to core principles. We yearn for humanity.

Whatever his many flaws, William Howard Taft had those qualities... in spades.

Which is why 2013 was a comeback year for "Big Bill."