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There Was A Storm Outside And A Bit Of Frost Within
(when Taft succeeded Teddy Roosevelt) (at one of the White House’s most unfortunate house parties)
December 1969 | Volume 21, Issue 1
Alice herself was an original. Intellectually honest, with an easy, irresistible manner and a wit that took a mischievous delight in shocking conventional minds, she was predisposed to pleasure. At twenty-five she had a past that included getting drunk on rose wine in Peking, jumping fully clothed into a ship’s swimming pool, smoking cigarettes, and being a factor in a suit involving a scandal magazine that had reported she had entertained Newport gentlemen by dancing in her chemise.
The last of the five married couples assembled at dinner that evening were also the oldest: Elihu Root, senator from New York—formerly Secretary of War for McKinley and T. R. and Secretary of State for T. R.—and Clara, his “funny bustling little wife,” as Alice Longworth described her. Root, austere in appearance, could on occasion be moved to tears. He wore a thick gray bang cut square across his forehead, and had a well-equipped mind that T. R. admired enormously and a sardonic wit that delighted him.
The remaining two dinner guests, Mabel Boardman and Archie Butt, were unmarried. Miss Boardman—tall, formidable, and forty-eight—appeared a congenital spinster. Her devotion to Will Taft and his devotion to her were so well known that after his election her young friends had taken to teasing her, calling her “the Pompadour of the Taft administration.” “Now, Mabel,” they would exclaim, “you’re going to be a Power!”
Archie Butt, military aide to T. R., was at Taft’s request to remain in the same capacity in the new administration. His full name and rank, Captain Archibald Wiliingham de Graflenreid Butt, led the Roosevelt children to recite it with a downhill lilt and claim it sounded like “a big load of coal falling down the stairs.”
Intimate friends though they all appeared to be, grievances lay festering not far beneath the surface of their relationships. Of Senator Root, Mrs. Taft had declared, “As he is perfectly uninterested in me, I can never talk to him.” Rankling within her, moreover, was the conviction that T. R. actually preferred Root to her husband as the man to succeed him. And in Will Taft, too, there lingered in memory the jealousy he had felt when he had succeeded Root as Secretary of War only to hear Root’s virtues in that office extolled. Root’s mordant humor, which T. R. found so outrageously funny, Taft found merely irritating.
Other, more immediate tensions made the smiles stiff, the conversations self-conscious, and the dinner an ordeal. Mrs. Roosevelt avoided any reference to the fact that on the next day Mrs. Taft would be First Lady; there was no housekeeping talk. But disturbingly unavoidable was Alice Longworth, whose imitations of Mrs. Taft were by now a well-known and popular feature of Washington parties. Mrs. Taft’s animosities were rarely short-lived, and Alice’s mockery added fuel to her burning resentment of T. R.
Of all those present, T. R. alone spoke with ease. In lieu of conversa- tion, the President carried on a skilled monologue, and the evening somehow passed. The prediction of one guest that it would be “replete with interesting incident” was wrong. Though tears were seen to drop into Senator Root’s soup, the salad course was reached without overt drama. Then custom sent the women upstairs to the library for their coffee; the men, to the President’s study. There T. R., as always, addressed Taft as “Will” and, as always, gave him unsolicited advice. And Taft continued to address T.R. as “Mr. President.”
Before long, it was time for Taft to leave for the New Willard Hotel, where his fellow Yale men were having a smoker in his honor. “I hope, with nerve,” he was to tell them, “to be able to stand just criticism.… and not care a dern for unjust criticism.” However, one Yale man and future Taft critic, Giftord Pinchot, recalled the President-elect’s speech as “curiously full of hesitation and foreboding. I cannot remember a single confident note in the whole of it.”
Taft’s departure accelerated the exodus of the other White House guests. Archie Butt wrote his sister-inlaw later that night:Finally, there were left only the President, Mrs. Taft and Mrs. Roosevelt and myself. Mrs. Roosevelt finally arose and said she would go to her room and advised Mrs. Taft to do the same. She took her hand kindly and expressed the earnest hope that her first night in the White House would be one of sweet sleep.…
In the Blue Bedroom, which had once been Lincoin’s cabinet room, Mrs. Taft felt a sudden swell of pride as she settled down for the night. However, she lay sleepless, haunted not by the great tragedy of Lincoln and the Civil War but by a cloud of petty details. A messenger had arrived with her gown for the Inaugural Ball; but since she did not know this, it proved an admirable subject for worry. And then there was the despicable weather to fret about. The weather was Mrs. Taft’s special concern, because she had won her war with the Inaugural Committee: after her husband was sworn in, though it meant breaking all precedent, she would ride triumphantly back to the White House with him. Helen Herren Taft—not Theodore Roosevelt—would be sitting beside the twenty-seventh President of the United States.