- Historic Sites
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
The snow that had been light and innocent at six in the evening turned into a meteorological nightmare during the night: seventy-mile-an-hour winds toppled telephone and telegraph poles and yanked wires loose, isolating Washington. And the snow became heavy, fell endlessly, as from an inexhaustible feather bed. Washington trolley cars and trains heading into the capital became immobilized. The twenty Pullman cars bearing the 7th Regiment, for example, took up what appeared to the passengers to be permanent residence north of Baltimore.
More than communications and transportation were affected; the residents of Washington, upon aivakening in the morning, saw that the storm, instead of abating, had increased in violence.
Taft had returned early from the smoker the evening before, at eleven o’clock, but still he slept soundly in the morning. His need for sleep was great. Psychologically, sleep fit his temperament, reducing strife to an absolute minimum, offering procrastination without guilt. Public functions had always caused him to doze off. Inured to this, Mrs. Taft would dutifully nudge him awake to the reality of droning speakers.
When Taft finally did wake, he rose ponderously, reluctantly. The storm may have concerned him, but there was work to be done on his inaugural address, work that even he could not put off. The speech was too long, and he eliminated paragraphs, following a long-held theory of Mrs. Taft’s that “no audience can stand more than an hour.”
He did not eliminate a paragraph on tariff reform, which T. R. had regarded as too hot to handle and had left for his successor. “I shall call Congress into extra session to meet on the i5th day of March, in order that consideration may be at once given to a bill revising the Dingley Act.” And in the very second paragraph, he would speak of the reforms of his “distinguished predecessor” and say that “I should be untrue to myself, to my promises, and to the declarations of the party platform upon which I was elected to office, if I did not make the maintenance and enforcement of those reforms a most important feature of my administration.”
As to this intention, Jonathan Dolliver—the huge, shambling senator from Iowa, with a wit always sharp and ready for attack—was to say, “Yes, Taft carried out T. R.’s policies, carried them out on a shutter.”
T. R. greeted Taft genially when the President-elect came down to breakfast that morning. “I knew there’d be a blizzard when I went out,” T. R. said. “You’re wrong,” Taft replied with a chuckle, “it is my storm. I always said it would be a cold day when I got to be President of the United States.”
The President’s laughter, his display of energy, could not conceal that in merely a few hours he would no longer be President and that he was acting as host in a house that was hardly his. Inevitably, sadness and regret colored T. R.’s last full hours as President. But the verbal evidence seemed to prove that the affection felt by T. R. and Taft for each other was as strong as ever. In a souvenir brochure, a bonus accompanying each ticket for the Inaugural Ball, T. R. reviewed Taft’s career and concluded, “No man of better training, no man of more dauntless courage, of sounder common sense and of higher and finer character, has ever come to the Presidency than William Howard Taft.” Not to be outdone, that week a laudatory article by Taft had appeared in Collier ’s. Entitled “My Predecessor,” it stated: When the friction of the last few months shall have disappeared, the greatness of Theodore Roosevelt as President and leader of men in one of the great moral movements of the country’s history will become clear to everyone and he will take his place in history with Washington and Lincoln.
Now these two men, each eulogized by the other, finished breakfast. Then, posing for a photographer, they stood together on the South Portico of the White House in Prince Albert coats, Taft exuding a substantial joviality, T. R. jaunty with a flower in his lapel.
At about ten o’clock T. R. moved with the rapid, jerky short steps of silent movies from the main entrance of the White House. He wore galoshes, and Boston gaiters covered his legs in tight embrace from his feet to his knees. He also held an umbrella as he stepped briskly through the swinging glass doors.
Immediately, he started bowing and nodding vigorously. “Good-bye! Good Luck!” he said repeatedly to the numerous newsmen, photographers, and White House attaches as he made his way to the waiting carriage. Taft, in an overcoat with a fur collar, and wearing a silk hat, smiled and nodded, too. He evoked a picture of a child emulating an older one, reduced by age and status to a position of tagging along.
By nine-thirty that morning Pennsylvania Avenue had already been cleared of snow. To accomplish this, six thousand street cleaners had worked hard, goaded by the urgency of the deadline, and they had spread eighteen thousand pounds of sand.
Even before the avenue had been cleared, spectators began to gather. In the ground-floor window of an undertaker’s parlor near Tenth Street, four aged women sat immobile. With hands folded macabrely, they waited like mourners for the sights to begin. And people filled windows of upper stories, too; store windows had been emptied for this purpose and were being rented for ten to twenty dollars. The amounts paid by the Vanderbilts, Whitneys, and Senator Boies Penrose for the best view of Pennsylvania Avenue from hotel windows were described by an awe-inspired, reverential press as “mysterious.”