William Howard Taft: Mental Decline

mental decline
Taft was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1923 -- the only President ever to serve on the high court. As early as 1925, however, Taft noticed that he was slowing down mentally. He noticed it more as the years passed. As Chief Justice, he administered the oath of office at President Hoover's inauguration in March 1929, but became confused about his lines and had to improvise. Although his general health declined, Taft was his normal alert self as December 1929 ended. By the end of January 1930 he was hallucinating. By the end of February 1930 he was intermittently comatose. He was dead on March 8 1a 2a. SEE BELOW

Some believe Taft had Alzheimer disease 3a. But, given his coronary disease (see below), it is likely he had cerebrovascular disease, too.

Pringle chronicles Taft's mental decline in several passages:
  • Nor did the mind of the Chief Justice wholly escape the creeping shadow of old age. "It doesn't seem to me that I write as rapidly as I used to. ... I am more leisurely in my methods of application," he complained in February, 1925. 1b

  • Three years later [May 30, 1928], in response to a request for information regarding some person he had known, Taft said that he could not remember. "My memory is growing poorer and poorer," he said. 1b

  • "... The truth is that my mind does not work as well as it did, and I scatter," he added. Proof of it came at the inauguration of President Hoover in March, 1929. The Chief Justice administered the oath, and the proceedings were, for the first time, broadcast by radio. Taft made a minor variation, of no importance at all, in the words, and a small girl in New York wrote to say that she had listened and to correct him.

    "... you may attribute the variation," the Chief Justice answered, "to the defect of an old man's memory." 1b

  • "I am older and slower and less acute and more confused. However, as long as things continue as they are, and I am able to answer in my place, I must stay on the court in order to prevent the Bolsheviki from getting control." [Taft to brother, Nov. 14, 1929] 1c
Cited Sources
  1. Pringle, Henry F. The Life and Times of William Howard Taft: A Biography. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, Inc., 1939.
    a  pp.1074-1078  b  p.1074  c  p.967
  2. Marx, Rudolph. The Health of the Presidents. New York: GP Putnam's Sons, 1960.
    a  pp.306-307

    Comment: Tells great tales, but the book does not cite its sources.

  3. Bumgarner, John R. The Health of the Presidents: The 41 United States Presidents Through 1993 from a Physician's Point of View. Jefferson, NC: MacFarland & Company, 1994.
    a  p.172

    Comment: Devotes one chapter to each President, through Clinton. Written for the layperson, well-referenced, with areas of speculation clearly identified, Dr. Zebra depends heavily on this book. Dr. Bumgarner survived the Bataan Death March and has written an unforgettable book casting a physician's eye on that experience.

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