The First Administration: 1901-1904
The epigraphs at the head of every chapter are by "Mr. Dooley," Theodore Roosevelt's favorite social commentator.
The Shadow of the Crown
I see that Tiddy, Prisidint Tiddy-here's his health-is th' youngest prisidint we've iver had, an' some iv th' pa-apers ar-re wondherin' whether he's old enough f'r th' raysponsibilities iv' th' office.
On the morning after McKinley's interment, Friday, 20 September 1901, a stocky figure in a frock coat sprang up the front steps of the White House. A policeman, recognizing the new President of the United States, jerked to attention, but Roosevelt, trailed by Commander Cowles, was already on his way into the vestibule. Nodding at a pair of attaches, he hurried into the elevator and rose to the second floor. His rapid footsteps sought out the executive office over the East Room. Within seconds of arrival he was leaning back in McKinley's chair, dictating letters to William Loeb. He looked as if he had sat there for years. It was, a veteran observer marveled, "quite the strangest introduction of a Chief Magistrate . . . in our national history."
As the President worked, squads of cleaners, painters, and varnishers hastened to refurbish the private apartments down the hall. He sent word that he and Mrs. Roosevelt would occupy the sunny riverview suite on the south corner. Not for them the northern exposure favored by their predecessors, with its cold white light and panorama of countless chimney pots.
A pall of death and invalidism hung over the fusty building. Roosevelt decided to remain at his brother-in-law's house until after the weekend. It was as if he wanted the White House to ventilate itself of the sad fragrance of the nineteenth century. Edith and the children would breeze in soon enough, bringing what he called "the Oyster Bay atmosphere."
At eleven o'clock he held his first Cabinet meeting. There was a moment of strangeness when he took his place at the head of McKinley's table. Ghostly responsibility sat on his shoulders. "A very heavy weight," James Wilson mused, "for anyone so young as he is."
But the President was not looking for sympathy. "I need your advice and counsel," he said. He also needed their resignations, but for legal reasons only. Every man must accept reappointment. "I cannot accept a declination."
This assertion of authority went unchallenged. Relaxing, Roosevelt asked for briefings on every department of the Administration. His officers complied in order of seniority. He interrupted them often with questions, and they were astonished by the rapidity with which he embraced and sorted information. His curiosity and apparent lack of guile charmed them.
The President's hunger for intelligence did not diminish as the day wore on. He demanded naval-construction statistics and tariff-reciprocity guidelines and a timetable for the independence of Cuba, and got two visiting Senators to tell him more than they wanted to about the inner workings of Congress. In the late afternoon, he summoned the heads of Washington's three press agencies.
"This being my first day in the White House as President of the United States," Roosevelt said ingratiatingly, "I desired to have a little talk with you gentlemen who are responsible for the collection and dissemination of the news."
A certain code of "relations," he went on, should be established immediately. He glanced at the Associated Press and Sun service representatives. "Mr. Boynton and Mr. Barry, whom I have known for many years and who have always possessed my confidence, shall continue to have it." They must understand that this privilege depended on their "discretion as to publication." Unfortunately, he could not promise equal access to Mr. Keen of the United Press, "whom I have just met for the first time."
Excerpted from Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris Copyright 2001 by Edmund Morris. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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