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WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 3, 1902
“You should have come, Henry,” I said. “You’d have hated it.”
Henry Adams had the good grace to laugh. It was a merry sound, so different from the Brahmin breathiness of his chatter. “Labor Day is a silly idea to start with,” he said. “Mr. Cleveland’s sop to the unions. So, when is Capitalists’ Day, pray tell?”
“Every day is Capitalists’ Day,” I replied.
“You ought to know, Hay,” Henry jabbed. Then: “The lawyers lost, you say.”
“Eight to two, on Georgetown College’s campus. The doctors hit the ball too damn hard. So did the lawyers, but right at someone.”
“I find a certain pleasure in that, I must say, old boy.”
Henry was well aware that I am a lawyer, though I have had the luck never to have practiced a day. “You don’t find pleasure in anything, Henry,” I said. “I’ve never known anyone who enjoyed his unhappiness more. Part of your charm.”
“Only a part?”
Our daily stroll usually began in Lafayette Square, in our topcoats and silk hats, around four o’clock in the afternoon. The walks had been Clara’s idea—what wasn’t?—and not only to keep me, at the venerable age of sixty-three, in (you should pardon the expression) boxing trim. Mainly it was to lure me away from my office, in that sand castle next to the White House, the State, War, and Navy Building, whose architect had killed himself a year after the final geegaw was squeezed on. Lately, the world had cooperated. It’s a pain in the arse to be a world power—how I’ve missed spending all summer in New Hampshire—but I shouldn’t complain. This summer was the quietest since the mid-’nineties, or certainly in the four years since McKinley had done me the dubious honor of making me his secretary of state. (Not that I played hard to get; I just made it look that way.) Theodore, probably against his better judgment, had kept me on.
To-day Henry and I dispensed with our topcoats, for the afternoon was hot and humid—womb-like, in my way of thinking. Henry was wearing his starched frock coat, wing collar, and funereal cravat. He looked even paler than usual, his cheeks thinner. More hair seemed to have migrated from his scalp to his pointed, devilish beard; he looked like the oversize brain that he was. Yet I had never known a man so honest, in his intellect and in his morals.
We glided to a stop, without conferring, along the western edge of the square, in front of 22 Jackson Place northwest. The sturdy brick town house with the pretentious Greek temple pediments over the windows was serving as the temporary White House. The real one was being renovated, cellar to attic, adding a western wing for the president’s executive offices.
“You know, Theodore is a stupid, blundering, bolting bull calf,” Henry was saying. The diamond stickpin in his cravat caught the afternoon light.
“Tell me, Henry, what do you really think?”
“And he might have arranged this accident by himself. He is capable of it, you know.”
“That’s cynical, Henry, even for you.”
“But plausible. For a president, you know, character is destiny.”
“Why on earth would you ever think that?” I teased. Henry’s grandfather and great-grandfather had been presidents, of which he never tired of reminding me. But, as usual, Henry had a point. Too often, I made the mistake of judging presidents as people—idiotic, I know, for a secretary of state, but I had befriended enough of them since Lincoln not to be cowed. And in this regard, I had to admit that Theodore came up a little short. (Not that I was pure.) Yes, he had the noblest traits—intelligence, fidelity, passion, sincerity, honesty, a grasp of history, a good heart, not to mention gobs of courage, physical and moral. His undeniable virtues were entangled, however, with a fixation on himself and a belief in his own rightness that scared me. He was warm to his friends (his thank-you notes were sonatas in paper and ink) but quick to belittle his political opponents as aunties or eunuchs. You didn’t want him at your dinner table if anyone else had a desire to talk. Here was a man of substance and probity who was still in many ways a child; you had to remember, as his best man said, that Theodore was about six years old. I liked him, I did—I made allowances for youth. Maybe he was stuffed fuller with talents than any mortal could handle with grace.
Cortelyou’s wire had come before noon, telling of the collision and the two arrests. The president was “considerably bruised” but not injured seriously, and Governor Crane had escaped without a scratch. But (from Cortelyou, it was probably an afterthought) William Craig was dead. No explanation.
Not Craig! Even now it was hard to believe. What a horror! Nothing like Del, of course, our late and intensely lamented son, but still. What a man Craig was! The man any man wanted to be. An accomplished boxer, wrestler, and swordsman; a war hero, muscled but modest; an invincible man. Yet his pectorals couldn’t protect him. And if his couldn’t, whose could?
“He loves the drama.” Henry was harping on Theodore. “He adores being the center of attention.”
“To the point of almost killing himself?”
“Especially then. For a grand exit. But he didn’t, did he? A narcissist—that is what that sex-crazed doctor in Vienna would call our well-bred Mr. Roosevelt.”
“Henry, I shall never take you seriously again.”
“No need to, old boy. I take myself seriously enough for both of us.” And at that, Henry squirmed—rather a rarity. A famed historian in his own right, he thought right well of himself. But didn’t we all? (Most Washingtonians, you should remember, are self-selected.) But this time, apparently, his discomfort was not about pride. “There is something I need to show you,” he said.
Henry bolted across Jackson Place and into Lafayette Park. This was the true center of the nation and more and more, therefore, of the civilized world. The iron fence was gone, a victim of democracy run amok—as Henry would rail—but the maples and elms were still in full leaf. Good ol’ Andy Jackson faced us on his rearing horse—the “tippy-toe statue,” as Tad Lincoln used to call it. How Henry hated looking from his bedroom window at his grandpappy’s rival—twice—for the presidency! Along the east and west sides of the park, in the Federalist-style brick town houses, resided ghosts from the past—of Seward and Sumner, of Webster and Blaine, of Decatur and McClellan. On the third side, to the north, Henry and I had built our houses side by side. (I hesitate to call mine a mansion, but others do.) From my bedroom I could see across the park to the White House, to the second-story room where I had slept in Lincoln’s day. Yet the park remained as tranquil as ever. The bowers of trees, the curves of gravel paths, the dawdling civil servants, the benches with courting couples—the place felt removed from the world yet surrounded by it, pressed in by it, like the eye of a hurricane. Beyond Lafayette Square, Henry liked to say, the country began.
I scrambled to keep up. It was rare that Henry outpaced me. I knew where he was going before he got there.
Marcus Alonzo Hanna was living there now, next to the ugly new opera house. The cream-colored brick house had a turret-shaped foyer and a second-floor balcony with a wrought iron railing. The senator from Ohio was the industrialist who had purchased the White House for William McKinley in ’ninety-six, and Roosevelt feared him as a rival for the Republican nomination in ’aught-four. But Hanna wasn’t the lure—not for Henry. Of that I was certain. Henry was drawn by a ghost, although not a ghost from the past. Lizzie’s ghost. A living ghost, as I understood all too well. Henry had loved her once; now it was my turn. But was it love or infatuation? I had spent far too much effort debating the subject and hating myself for it.
* * *
“Electric cars are the enemies of humanity,” Henry Adams pronounced. “So sayeth the kaiser.”
“Then it must be true,” Clara said, pouring the tea. She knew how to handle Henry—with gentle mockery. My wife’s empathy was absolute, so she was rarely if ever disappointed in Henry, or in anyone else, including me. Her advantage was low expectations—the secret to happiness in life. I admired that in her. Envied it, in fact. Tried to emulate it and usually fell short. (But what else was new?) She had only the highest expectations for herself.
“Did you hear about the electric streetcar that rammed the rear of a train?” Henry said. “A couple of months ago—you were at the Fells.” That was our lake house in New Hampshire. “Happened in the city here, on Four-and-a-half street southwest. Threw the trolley from its tracks and tossed the passengers from their seats. Scared the poor devils half to death. And just the other day, the frightened horse on Wisconsin avenue that collided with one of those steam-spewing automobiles. Only by some miracle was nobody—”
“We are living in an age of miracles,” I pointed out, watching the cream in my tea coalesce into the shape of Luzon.
“And those miracles will murder us all,” Henry said. “I should prefer the twelfth century over the twentieth any day of the week. Less brutal, for one thing. And grander in conception. The finest epoch in Christian civilization, as the construction of Chartres and of Mont-Saint-Michel will attest.” Henry’s forearm swept close to the teapot, alluding (although never admitting) to his current opus. I happened to know, by way of Lizzie, that he was just finishing the first draft. “And compared to what, may I ask? The Kodak, naphtha lamps, rubber tires?”
“How about the dentistry?” Clara cooed.
We were taking tea, as we ordinarily did, in my library. I loved this room, more than any I had ever called my own. It had plush chairs and mahogany woodwork and Oriental rugs and a pair of stuffed white cranes perched near the ceiling, above the carved settees. The fireplace was a yellow marble, the hearth a reddish rock. Books overflowing the shelves piled up on the floor. Clara (and Henry, of course) thought the room overfurnished, but I found the clutter a comfort. It swaddled me, and besides, I knew where everything was. I was sitting in my maroon leather armchair.
“Did he have a family, John?” Clara said. She was still thinking about Craig.
“He was to get married next month,” I replied. “At the White House. To a lovely girl.”
Copyright © 2019 by Burt Solomon