- 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
Spectators also filled the slushy streets. Thousands wore little cards that ordered gaily, “Smile, Smile, Smile,” for smiling had become synonomous with the big man who was about to become President.
The weather had wiped the smiles from the faces of men selling seats that had been erected outdoors; they were begging that three- and five-dollar ones be taken for a dollar. And ten-cent and twenty-five-cent sandwiches were eagerly being sold for two or three cents.
The principals responsible for all this anticipation and activity sat in their carriage, which had now started to move, drawn by four sleek, perfectly matched bays. Silk hats lent formality to the two Negroes sitting up high on the driving seat. Eight Secret Service men and four detectives from the metropolitan police force walked close beside the carriage.
As the procession emerged from the West Gate, applause sounded and was continuously renewed, and T. R. waved his silk hat at the window in acknowledgement. Taft obviously didn’t know what every politician knew: crowds must be flattered by recognition, if it be no more than a wave of a hand or a nod. During the entire trip, not once did the President-elect look out of the carriage or acknowledge the crowd.
All the way up Capitol Hill, spectators stood in slush; finally, they were rewarded for their patience and discomfort. The carriages arrived, and they saw T. R. and Taft climbing the broad Capitol steps together. But their pleasure proved momentary. It turned to disappointment and anger when government employees announced through megaphones that due to the inclement weather the inauguration ceremonies would be held in the Senate Chamber.
In the front row of the executive galleries at the south end of the chamber, the Tafts sat together. They were all there, too. Mrs. Taft sat arrayed in elegance. This high point in her life demanded elegance: large pearls in her ears, a string of pearls about her throat, a gown of mauve chiffon velvet. Seated on her right, in order of seniority, were Robert, a junior at Yale; then Helen, a freshman at Bryn Mawr; and then Charlie. Young, cheerful, freckle-faced Charlie had made it, though he had the problem of being excused from Taft School, his Uncle Horace’s school in Watertown, Connecticut, whose rules forbade absence on any account during the school year. Resourceful Uncle Horace had formulated a new rule: “Any boy whose father becomes President of the United States might be excused to attend the inauguration.”
Charles P. Taft, after whom young Charlie had been named, sat at his sister-in-law’s left. As she had provided the ambition for her husband’s presidential aspirations, he had provided the money. For eighteen years—from the time Will Taft was Solicitor General of the United States—his half-brother had subsidized him devotedly. The annual contributions had been from six to ten thousand dollars.
Directly behind Charles Taft sat Aunt Delia—white-haired, ancient, but with alert eyes and a new hat. She was Miss Delia Chapin Torrey, oldest sister of the President-elect’s mother, who had also determined that Will should be President.
At 11:45, with tne appearance of the justices of the Supreme Court, in voluminous black silk gowns and headed by Chief Justice Melville Weston Fuller, a stir spread through the galleries and chamber. The inauguration was getting under way. The justices filed in and were seated. The diplomatic corps followed, their elaborate trappings of gold lace, colored sashes, and jewelled orders contrasting sharply with the black frock coats and white linen of the American legislators.
This parading to seats consumed a half hour. Theoretically T. R.’s term of office had ended at twelve noon, and the United States had been without a Chief Executive for over fifteen minutes; no one had even resorted to the old subterfuge of turning back the hands of the clock to circumvent this predicament.
Shortly after 12:15 an announcement heralded the entrance of the President and the President-elect. Then, ceremoniously, a pair of senators and a pair of representatives escorted T. R. and Taft to chairs reserved for them. After being seated, as though continuing the tribalistic formality of their arrival, they looked straight ahead. Finally, Taft ignored the sacred ritual and glanced up at his family and smiled. But T. R., restrained by the inaugural’s prescribed rites, stared grimly ahead.
First came a prayer. Assisted to the platform, Edward Everett Hale, Senate Chaplain, beseeched God with a voice that trembled with infirmity and entreaty.
The prayer ended. Taft arose. For him to be unsmiling made him appear especially somber. He left his seat next to T. R. and walked to the platform. With Taft no longer beside him, T. R. appeared alone, isolated.
It was part of an ironic set of circumstances that Chief Justice Fuller should administer the oath of office to President-elect TaIt. Fuller, small, brisk, with silky white hair that draped on his shoulders, was a relic of another era: he had been appointed by his fellow Democrat Grover Cleveland, and his judicial qualifications were not highly regarded, particularly by T. R. and Taft. In 1904, when he had already sat as Chief Justice for sixteen years, T. R. circulated the rumor that he might retire “and that Governor Tat’t [then in the Philippines] would be a suitable man for the vacancy.” At a dinner given by Fuller, Mrs. Fuller directed a guest who was on his way to the Philippines to “tell Willie Taft not to be in too much of a hurry to get into my husband’s shoes.”