Arlington National Cemetery is a place of many different characteristics.
For starters, with something like 400,000 servicemen and women (and their spouses) buried there, it’s not hyperbolic at all to call Arlington the nation’s “Most-Hallowed Ground”.
It’s also a monument to one man’s spite. During the Civil War, Union Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs–a Georgian who stayed loyal to the United States–and whose own son had died in the war, chose Arlington as the location for a new Union cemetery. Why did Meigs choose Arlington? Well, before the war, Arlington had been home to Robert E. Lee, who instead of taking command of the Union army went off with his home state of Virginia into secession. Meigs blamed Lee for the carnage of the war and commandeered the old man’s home for a cemetery.
It’s also a place where you can play “Find The Famous Person.” Audie Murphy, the most-decorated American soldier of World War II is buried at Arlington. So is heavyweight champion Joe Louis. Omar Bradley, the last American five-star general rests is the cemetery’s grounds, not far from former Secretary of State Alexander Haig. Oscar-winning actor, and legendary Hollywood drunk, Lee Marvin, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Robert Peary, the explorer credited with leading the first mission to the geographic North Pole, and Robert Todd Lincoln, son of Abraham Lincoln, can all be found buried on Arlington’s grounds.
And there are also the graves of three men that nobody knows, the soldiers from World War I, World War II and the Korean War who lie at the Tomb of the Unknowns, that create Arlington’s most-somber, and most-honored site.
Arlington is also the final resting place for some American presidents. But, you might be surprised at just how many of our 39 late presidents are buried at Arlington: Only two.
Of course, everyone knows about the Big One, John F. Kennedy. There is basically a Kennedy family plot at the cemetery, as next to Jack lies his widow, Jackie Onassis, his brother, Robert, his son, Patrick, who died two days after being born premature in 1963, and a daughter who was stillborn several years before JFK was elected president in 1960. (Or, some would argue, had the election bought for him by his father, politician and rumored one-time bootlegger Joe Kennedy Sr.)
You can go ahead and guess who the second president buried at Arlington is, but you’ll probably be wrong. George Washington? Thomas Jefferson? Andrew Jackson? Abe Lincoln? No, no, no and no. You might know that Ulysses S. Grant, along with his wife, Julia, is buried in Grant’s Tomb, but that tomb isn’t at Arlington. Not even Dwight D. Eisenhower—who before he became president had a pretty solid military résumé as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in World War II—chose to forgo Arlington for his hometown of Abilene, Kansas as his burial place.
No, The only other president laid to rest at Arlington would probably be a surprise to many, if anyone thought of him at all. The only other president to be buried at Arlington is…
William Howard Taft. And as much as I know about American history, even I had no idea that Taft, out of all of our presidents, was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
But someone I know very well knew that fact. Someone who I speak to everyday. Someone who lives in my house. Someone who I have to remind a minimum of 37 times a day to turn the lights off when she leaves her bedroom or the bathroom:
My nine-year-old daughter, Maddo.
When the average person thinks about William Howard Taft, it’s usually because they’ve been asked who the fattest president was. We Americans can be pretty awful when it comes to knowing our basic civics and national history. I’m sure that more Americans know who Kourtney Kardashian’s latest baby daddy is. (NBA player Tristan Thompson, for those keeping score at home.) than know for whom Taft served as Secretary of War (Teddy Roosevelt) before he himself occupied the White House.
Or, know that Taft was president at all.
But, he was president, and Maddo will tell you that, and just about everything else about the man. Including that he is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. So, in the year 2018, how does a nine-year-old kid who thinks making “slime” is the peak of scientific study and who still needs to be told about 400 times a day to not leave her shoes/blanket/toys in the middle of the main living room walkway–but who leaves all that crap there anyway–become a fan of the 27th president, a man who took office at a time when there were only 46 states and the Chicago Cubs has just won what would be their last World Series for 108 years?
Well…I have to give credit to the old-fashioned public school library, as well as my kid’s own direct stubbornness.
One day this past spring, everyone in Maddo’s third-grade class got an assignment to do a report on a famous person. From what I understand, the kids could pick whomever they wanted as a subject. So, with those guidelines in place, Maddo went to the library, grabbed a copy of a book, and went to work picking her person.
The book? “So, You Want To Be President”. And in it, there were 44 possible subjects from which the kid could choose (The book was written before Donald Trump became President No. 45). But, instead of picking one of the usual suspects, Maddo preferred to let fate direct her choice.
Me: So, Sweetie…Why did you pick William Howard Taft?
Maddo: I just said, “I’m going to open the book and whoever’s on the page, that’s who I’m going to write about.”
And when she opened the book, the “Whoever” that she landed upon was William Howard Taft in all of his awesomely mustachioed and very large bodied glory.
When it comes to the “Great Presidents”, Taft doesn’t come up in the conversation. Part of that is because of how we have lifted the likes of Washington, Lincoln, FDR and even Ronald Reagan to such exalted status that it’s hard for anyone else to break into what could be the March Madness Presidential Tourney. According to a survey published in the New York Times earlier this year, the Top Ten Presidents are as follows:
Lincoln (Having “Freed the slaves” and “Saved the Union” on your résumé is pretty tough to top.)
Harry S Truman (The “S” stood for…nothing.)
Barack Obama (The Times notes the relative recency of Obama’s presidency and the initial lunacy of the Trump Administration as helping to boost Obama’s status.j
Lyndon B. Johnson (Uh…Vietnam War, anyone?)
Where does Taft rank? Basically, right smack in the middle, at No. 22. Not high enough to be “great”, not low enough to be considered “bad”, either. Taft is just…there.
Taft’s presidency was about as “middle” as one could get, too. Taft was preceded by Teddy Roosevelt, the youngest president ever, who “took” the Panama Canal, negotiated peace between Russia and Japan (and won the Nobel Peace Prize for doing so) and who remains larger than life today. Taft lost re-election in 1912, and was then followed by Woodrow Wilson, a not-so-closeted racist who kept us out of, and then led us into World War I, and during whose presidency was passed the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, but also the 18th Amendment, which as any good beer drinker knows, led to the 13 year-long Dark Age known as Prohibition.
Taft’s presidency was known for…Taft getting stuck in the White House bathtub?
However, that didn’t matter to Maddo.
Nope. This kid threw herself into All-Things Taft during the period of putting her report together, and for weeks afterward. Sometimes, it seemed like there was a new Taft Fact every day. Some of the facts Maddo brought to me about “Tafty Wafty”, as she called him, I already knew. Some of them I would have never thought came from the Taft File. All of them combined to prove that William Howard Taft has gotten a bit of a short shrift with regards to how interesting he really was
Among the things Madeline learned about “Tafty Wafty” were…
—He was governor of the Philippines from 1900 until 1904.
—In 1910, he became the first president to throw out a ceremonial first pitch at a Major League Baseball game.
—He was the first president to own his own car.
—Taft’s father, Alphonso Taft, served in the Civil War under Ulysses S. Grant.
—While he was president, Taft oversaw the ratification of the 16th Amendment (Although, that did give Congress the right to levy income taxes, so Taft might not want to hang his hat on that on.
—He was the last president to have a milk cow at the White House.
—1921, he was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. This made Taft the first, and so far only president to also be Chief Justice.
—And as Chief Justice, Taft became the only former president to swear another president into office. He did this twice, in fact, with Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover.
Maddo also told me that Taft was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. And when I told her we would be going to Arlington, well, Audie Murphy, the Kennedys and the Tomb Of The Unknowns all took second place to the thought of seeing the grave of Tafty Wafty.
We got to Arlington around 10 a.m. and staggered our way across the grounds for a while, not so much because of the crowds or getting lost, but because of exhaustion. The best price for a non-stop flight from San Francisco to Washington Dulles happened to be for a red eye that left SFO at 11:35 p.m. and landed at 7:45 in the morning, east coast time, and we figured saving a few hundred bucks and not having to change planes was worth wrecking our internal clocks for a day. We landed, got our bags and rental car, put Arlington into my Mapquest app and…promptly drove right by the place and ended up in Maryland.
After getting pointed back below the Mason-Dixon Line, we were soon on the right track and made our way toward Arlington. The whole time, Maddo kept going on about “Tafty Wafty” and when we were going to get to see his grave. Eventually, we arrived at the cemetery, with about a few hundred of our close, personal friends and fellow tourists. If you want to walk your way around Arlington, admission to the cemetery is free. Since we were already half in the bag with exhaustion, the thought of waking around Arlington didn’t faze us at all and we headed up the road and past the first of thousands of headstones.
Even with a map that showed where Taft’s grave was, it took us a while to get the man’s resting place. We actually wandered our way up to JFK’s grave, first, because signs pointing the direction there greet you from almost the second you walk onto Arlington’s grounds. The JFK memorial was packed, as always, with tourists checking out the Eternal Flame and the surprisingly simple headstones for Kennedy and his family members. Across from the graves is a short, stone wall in which some of Kennedy’s most-famous words are inscribed. Needless to say, JFK’s graveside is one of the most-visited locations at Arlington: Of the 3 million people that visit Arlington every year, about 3 million of them make a swing by Kennedy’s grave.
And then there is the grave of William Howard Taft. It took us a while to find our way to Taft’s burial spot, but, eventually, we were there, and walking right up to the 14-and-a-half-foot-high monument that marks Taft’s final resting place. I have no idea how many of Arlington’s visitors visit Taft’s grave every year, but I know at least six who did in 2018, and those were me, my wife, Maddo our younger daughter, Little Sis, and the two other tourists that were there with us, and who looked like they stumbled upon Taft’s grave while trying to find one of the cemetery’s rest rooms.
You can practically walk right up to Taft’s monument as you read the inscription that tells you here is buried a man who lived from 1857 to 1930, and who is the only man who has ever been both President and Chief Justice of the United States. There are no crowds, and no rope or barrier keeping visitors back and away from Taft like there are around JFK’s grave.
Maddo couldn’t wait any longer. With no one in her way, she charged up to Tafty Wafty’s resting spot and read aloud the inscription. No superfluous rhetoric. No indelible quotes. Just Taft’s name, his birth and death years, and an acknowledgement of his two most-important job titles. And underneath all of that, the name of Taft’s wife, Helen Herron Taft, who, like her husband, was first in her own right, being that in 1943 she became the first First Lady buried at Arlington.
Getting up to Taft’s grave may be the closest Maddo ever gets to an American president. Taft may not be No. 1 in terms of visitors at Arlington, but he had enough firsts to be No. 1 for Maddo.