There Was A Storm Outside And A Bit Of Frost Within

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The March rain appeared to be nothing more than the cold, cheerless, unrelenting rain of any winter. But time and place gave it a singular importance: Washington, D.C., the day before the inauguration of a new Republican President, former Governor General of the Philippines and Secretary of War, William Howard Taft. During the past two weeks skeletal scaffolding for seats had materialized all along Pennsylvania Avenue, the route of the Inauguration Day parade. The severity of the weather rendered pathetic and desolate these structures, which one Democratic observer dismissed as “crude and unsightly.” Decorations—flags, bunting, floral baskets—were drenched, desecrated by a savage east wind, their festive purpose defeated.

Theodore Roosevelt started this day, March 4, 1909, his last as President, with a customary hurried breakfast of hard-boiled eggs, rolls, and a large cup of coffee sweetend by saccharin. He then jogged downstairs and walked briskly to his office in the West Wing; there was not, as yet, any external evidence that this particular day was essentially different from any of the almost three thousand others T.R. had spent in the White House. But today well-wishers made up most of the crowd that had already gathered in the waiting room. Beyond it, in the thirty-foot-square office, mail to be signed rose in toppling-high piles on the President’s desk. The White House tennis court, where much of T.R.’s work had been conducted, was empty. This morning there was no meeting of the “Tennis Cabinet.” Instead callers came, brought by congressmen, and T.R. pumped their helpless hands with both of his and talked, as one observer noted, “with all his features working.” Today there was much lively raillery, and the laughter was louder than usual. It was a determined but tranparent attempt to keep T.R.’ last hours as President from being tainted by melancholy. Throughout the confusion, T.R.’ pace was not in the lest affected. He marched up and down—or sat on the edge of his desk, swinging his leg—as he dictated to William Loeb, his secretary.

One letter that was distinctively T.R. and was weighted with largess and solicitous coercion went to Will Taft, his successor. “Dear Will,” he wrote. “One closing legacy. Under no circumstance divide the battleship fleet between the Atlantic and Pacific prior to the finishing of the Panama Canal.”

The activity in the West Wing on that fourth day of March may have been more than the natural momentum of seven and a half years of uninterrupted frenetic activity, for T. R. had reached the point of admitting to himself that he was troubled about the close friend whom he had chosen to succeed him. He even expressed his doubts—curiously enough to a newspaperman. During the afternoon, in the process of saying good-bye, he escorted Mark Sullivan to the door. “He’s all right,” T.R. said of Will Taft. “He means well and he’ll do his best. But he’s weak. They’ll get around him. They’ll”—T.R. put his shoulder against Sullivan and pushed. “They’ll lean against him.”

But Taft still was a very close friend of T. R.’s. “The two men seem to have a personal affection for one another,” Archie Butt, T. R.’s White House aide, had observed. “It is beautiful to see them together.” And T. R. earnestly insisted that his friend would keep his policies alive, that on all fundamentals they were in agreement. To buttress this conviction with a special gesture, he had extended an invitation to Will and Nellie Taft to dine at the White House and to spend the night—literally to move in the evening before the inauguration.

In accepting this pre-inaugural invitation, Taft, clinging tenaciously to an old friendship, had written T.R.:People have attempted to represent that you and I were in some way at odds during this last two or three months; whereas you and I know that there has not been the slightest difference between us, and I welcome the opportunity to stay the last night of your administration under the White House roof and to make as emphatic as possible the refutation of any such suggestion. With love and affection, my dear Theodore.…

Mrs. Taft felt differently about the evening ahead. For Theodore Roosevelt was Nellie Taft’s nemesis. Dark suspicion pervaded her every thought of him. “The subject of my husband’s appointment to the Supreme Court,” she had written sardonically, “cropped up with what seemed annoying frequency.” What motivated T. R.’s persistence was patently clear to her: the desire to keep Will in the “groove” of a lifetime appointment to the court, and out of the Presidency. And even now Mrs. Taft viewed Roosevelt’s advocacy of her husband with distrust.

Early in their marriage Taft described his wife as his “dearest and best critic” and praised her for “stirring me up to best effort,” but as the inauguration drew nearer—relentlessly, inevitably nearer—Taft became irritable and unhappy. In spite of what he had written to T. R., he dreaded the evening ahead, an evening he was later to refer to as “that funeral.”

Taft’s amiability did not prevent him from abhorring politics. It was his wife, his brothers, and T. R. who were determined that he be President. Big Will Taft merely wished for the peace, the calm, the dignity, of a judicial career. Nonetheless, he now found himself only hours from the Presidency.