The National Catholic Review

From that moment in October 1919 when his doctor cried, My God, the President is paralyzed, until his last meeting with his cabinet in March 1921a meeting at which he could neither control his tears nor walk steadily even with his caneWoodrow Wilson’s every word, gesture and act was directed by Edith Galt Wilson, his second wife and dear chum. The president’s incapacitation, the first lady’s orchestration of his life during those 17 months and the constitutional and political issues that arose out of the disability of a sitting president are all part of Phyllis Lee Levin’s Edith and Woodrow.

Wilsonian historians are legion, as are those who had any association with Wilson or his administration and who have preserved documents, letters and memoirsand Levin knows them all. She offers little in the way of new interpretation of these people and events; rather the intrigue of Levin’s book is in her astute analysis of Edith Wilson’s personality and enmities.

Within nine months of meeting Edith Bolling Galt, Woodrow Wilson married for the second time. A 43-year-old widow from Virginia, Edith had a smattering of education, traveled regularly in Europe, was beautiful and charming and had set her sights on Woodrow Wilson. She had attended his Congressional addresses and read The New Freedom. Although during their courtship Edith sometimes demurred to give Wilson adviceshe simply asked that he write something I shall glory inmore often she requested that she be taken in to partnership. Within months she was reading Wilson’s notes to the Germans, sorting through cabinet documents and so readily expressing her disdain for the then secretary of state William Jennings Bryan that Wilson asked, Isn’t it risky to use mere paper when you commit such heat to writing? Edith sat in on the president’s conferences, worked side by side with him from 5 a.m. to midnight, and sought the removal of cabinet members whom she saw as threatening to her husband.

Few escaped her scrutiny, judgment or censure. Vice President Thomas Marshall, once Wilson was stricken, announced he would not assume any presidential duties unless ordered to do so by the Court or by Congress, yet Edith would neither tolerate the mention of his name nor allow him to see the president. Secretary of State Robert Lansing fared no better. Edith had dismissed him as only a clerk when Wilson appointed him, refusing him access to Wilson after his stroke and putting him off with her now infamous The President says penned above her own remarks. She finally insisted the president demand Lansing’s resignation on the grounds he had usurped the president’s power by calling the cabinet into session several times while Wilson lay limp and confused in his bed. For someone like Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, the villain to her knight in shining armor, she reserved even greater invective. Lodge, with his sinister hate, was a venomous serpent crawling through dirty pathsleaving poison as he followed his slimy underwater awful course.

Colonel Edward House, on the other hand, was Wilson’s trusted friend and confidant. And it was precisely because between Wilson and House there was nothing too big, too important, too secret or too sacred’ to be talked about, because House’s arrival gave satisfaction and his departure left regret and because he was Wilson’s dearest friend that Edith Wilson targeted him. From the first moment she heard his name she perceived House as the greatest threat to her intimacy with her husband. Even before meeting him, she told Woodrow that House was a weak vessel; later she blamed House for wrecking Wilson’s plans and for the tragic years that have demoralized the world. Never successful in relegating him as ambassador to England, or anywhere else away from Washington, in the end she cut off all communication with House. The colonel last talked with Wilson in June of 1919; all his letters to Wilson thereafter went unopeneda fact he never knew.

Only Joseph Tumulty and Dr. Cary Grayson gave enough abject service to Edith Wilson and servile loyalty to Woodrow Wilson to play a role in her conspiracy to save her husband’s presidency. Edith had disliked Tumulty in the beginning. His Roman Catholicism (note: anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism and racial bigotry ran rampant in the Wilson White House), his New Jersey rough edges, his flamboyance and his lack of breeding put her off. But when he drafted the 1919 State of the Union address so true to Wilson’s own style that the Washington Star acclaimed the real Wilson was back, she became determined to use those skills to her advantage. Grayson’s total capitulation to Edith Wilson, as Levin describes it, earned him an immediate place in the veil of secrecy she sought to cast around her husband. His talent for fabricating diagnoses, in couching all reports about Wilson’s health in classic physician’s language, deliberately opaque [and] obtuse and his descriptions of her as a perfect angel rendered him essential to her cause. Together the three isolated Wilson from the press, the Congress, his cabinet and his most trusted aides. When an appearance of the president could no longer be avoided, they darkened the room, propped him up in bed, covered his paralyzed left side and timed the minutes of the visit. Mostly they just refused the importunities of all comers.

Whatever the constitutional issues, Marshall, Lansing and House at least would have brought solid credentials and political savvy to the office. The triumvirate of Edith Wilson, presidential spouse; Cary Grayson, presidential physician; and Joseph Tumulty, presidential press secretary reigning in the sick room for nearly a year and a half is quite another story, but a story well told. Levin (a historian and the author most recently of Abigail Adams) sets her assessment of Edith Wilson right in the center of the many crises of the time: the entry of the United States into World War I, Wilson at the Paris peace negotiations, his struggle with Lodge and the Republicans over the League of Nations and the role of the United States in the postwar world.

This is a story of high politics and grave constitutional issues, but it is also a tale of mystery and high intrigue. Edith Wilson not only made up the rules as she went along; she also used her vivid imagination to construct tales of meetings that never took place. The opening of her papers (closed for 15 years after her death), the discovery of case notes of the consulting neurologist, Francis Dercum, and the poignancy of the many unopened letters of Colonel House to Wilson all contribute to this compelling saga of Edith Wilson.

Edith Wilson was not president (despite the book jacket’s proclamation); she harbored no such ambition and had no other agenda than that of protecting her husband and preserving his presidency. Levin speculates that Vice President Marshall may have been more conciliatory than Wilson toward Senator Lodge’s reservations about the League of Nationsa body that with U.S. membership might have helped avert World War II. More to the point may be the as yet unanswered question of who determines the inability of a sitting president to govern. Much like Toby Ziegler on the acclaimed television series The West Wing, we all have to ask if for 17 months there was a coup d’état in this country by someone who[m] no one elected, can it happen again?

 

Constance McGovern is a professor of history at Frostburg State University in Maryland.

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