From Chapter One:
New Year's Day
On January 1, in Washington, D.C., a fresh fall of snow about an inch deep was brightening the city. Skaters were out on the Potomac and in Rock Creek Park, horse-drawn sleighs moved through the woods in splendid isolation. At the Capitol, where the old gaslight posts had finally been removed, cinders were being scattered on the icy steps. With Congress in recess and the federal bureaus closed, the city was even quieter than usual. But midmorning the Sabbath-like stillness was broken by the warning gongs of trolleys as crowds crammed on streetcars heading for the White House.
The diplomatic corps was out in full regalia; there were more women wearing tiaras in the morning than even the oldest reporter could recall. Elegant carriages, their wheels creaking on the hard-packed snow, with coachmen and footmen on the box, jockeyed for position on Pennsylvania Avenue. At the edge of the city, in a curiously shaped modern studio, Frances Benjamin Johnston, the idiosyncratic, cigarette-smoking photographer, was preparing for President McKinley's New Year's Day reception. On Johnston's calendar was the simple notation, "WH." America's court photographer, she had been in and out of the White House for years, but this morning she would leave her cameras home.
Down the Mall, on the second floor of the crowded Executive Mansion, President and Mrs. William McKinley, surrounded by friends and aides, were greeting cabinet members and their wives in the presidential library. The reports from the Philippines that morning had been unsettling. A rebel plot had been uncovered in Manila and native spies were reporting that two thousand armed insurgents were strengthening artillery placements outside the city. But as the presidential party waited for the signal to make their way down the central stairs and into the Blue Room, McKinley seemed unperturbed.
Two thousand citizens were already standing by the gates in an arctic wind, waiting to pay their respects. The president had never been more popular, and the reception this morning promised to be as splendid as any ever held in the White House. As the diplomats and their wives were ushered into the East Room, it was clear their attendance was more than just a courtesy call. America was no longer an upstart republic; it had emerged from the Spanish-American War as one of the richest and most powerful nations on earth. If there were misgivings among the Europeans over this shift in world affairs, and indeed there were, the mood among the Americans was triumphant.
When Senator Chauncey Depew of New York declared, "There is not a man here who does not feel four hundred percent bigger in 1900, bigger intellectually, bigger hopefully, bigger patriotically that he is a citizen of a country that has become a world power," he reflected the feelings of millions of people. In the year-end roundups published in newspapers that weekend, one state after the next reported an unprecedented level of well-being. And the staid New York Times reported a "prosperity panic on Wall Street. "
At the start of this election year the Republican party had an enormous advantage. But on New Year's Day, no one knew for sure, not even McKinley, whether he would run for a second term. It was the great question of the day. As the Marine band played "Hail to the Chief," the president and his wife, following the cabinet, threaded their way past favored friends into the Blue Room where thousands of tiny electric bulbs were woven through the smilax and jungle of palms. Ida McKinley, in a new, mauve-colored brocaded gown with diamond ornaments on the bodice, settled into a chair by her husband's side.
The president's wife was a pale and fragile woman, given to seizures and nervous complaints. Over the past, three years Mrs. McKinley had stood up to the demands of the White House better than expected, but there was speculation now among Republican leaders as to whether she had the strength to face another term. The president himself was uncertain. After thirty years of marriage, Ida remained at the center of his life and he would do nothing to jeopardize her health.
Copyright © 1998 Judy Crichton.
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