The New York Times predicted that with Nellie Taft as first lady, “the Taft Administration will be brilliant beyond any similar period in America’s social history.” Over the years, she had established a sterling reputation as a democratic hostess, opening her doors to people from all backgrounds. In the Philippines, she had stunned the conservative military establishment by rejecting their strict segregation of whites and native Filipinos, instead insisting “upon complete racial equality” at the governor’s palace. As first lady, she brought the same egalitarian ethos to her position. She spoke out against the unhealthy working conditions of government employees and embarked upon several civic projects. She helped design a beautiful public park along the Tidal Basin where concerts could be held every week during the summer months, and made arrangements to bring the same flowering cherry trees she had admired in Japan to the nation’s capital.
Nellie Taft was swiftly becoming one of the most respected and powerful first ladies in history. Then, only ten weeks after the inauguration, terrible misfortune shattered these auspicious beginnings. On board the presidential yacht with her husband and some guests, Nellie suffered a devastating stroke that left her temporarily paralyzed and unable to speak. At the sight of his half-conscious wife, only forty-seven years old, Taft turned “deathly pale.” Taft’s “great soul,” Archie Butt empathized, was “wrapped in darkness.” Although Nellie gradually recovered the ability to walk, she would continue to struggle with her speech the rest of her life.