Today’s Topic: Woodrow Wilson and “When the Cheering Stopped”

When I was growing up, I think that Woodrow Wilson was extraordinarily remembered as the intellectual president who helped win World War I for the allies, who fought it as a “war to end all wars”, who had a grand concept of nations states (as opposed to multistate empires) working together, through a League of Nations, to secure peace for all times, but whose plans were thwarted by reactionary conservatives in Congress (who disapproved the American entry into the League, thus depriving the League of sufficient power and influence), leading in some way to the rise of Hitler and all that followed.  This compounded with the collapse of Wilson’s health, and his not too long after the completion of his second term as president.  At least this is what I remember about Wilson from those days.

Then, the spin on Wilson seemed to shift.  Now Wilson was viewed as a rigid, uncompromising former University professor and president, a child of the segregationist South, who helped deepen segregation in the country and in the federal government, and whose lack of political skills (or refusal to modify his rigid positions) made it impossible for Congress to perform its functions, as Wilson the rigid isolationist became Wilson the rigid internationalist, spending all his energy on the issue of the League of Nations and ignoring domestic concerns, just when the country wanted to hunker down and forget about the rest of the world.

Perhaps, views are changing again, at least based on some of the reviews I have read of the new biography of Wilson by A. Scott Berg, titled appropriately “Wilson”, which I understand to be fairly laudatory (one reviewer said that, if his biography were ever to be written, he hoped it would be written by Berg), although Maureen Dowd, in today’s column in the New York Times does suggest that Berg was certainly not complimentary with regard to Wilson’s racial attitudes.

While I have certainly read a lot about Wilson over the years, I don’t recall reading a biography. One of the better known Wilson biographies is Gene Smith’s “When the Cheering Stopped”, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year.  I just finished reading it for the first time.  It was perhaps, in its way, the saddest book I have ever read (and that’s saying something), but also a book that should be read.

“When the Cheering Stopped” is not a definitive study of the eight years of the Wilson presidency, nor a full life study of Wilson the individual. It is not a study of post-war America, and contains no analysis of (and not editorializing about) the major issues of the day.  It is a unique, and fascinating study, of Wilson the human being from the time of his triumph at the end of World War I until his death in 1924, about three years after the end of his presidency.

You get a picture of Wilson as a man with an unbelievable work ethic, the most revered statesman, the man who not only was Commander in Chief of the army that won the war, but the man destined to design a new Europe, ensuring that the days of a militaristic Germany were over, providing for self-determination for a substantial number of European nationalities, resetting the continent’s political boundaries, and establishing an international organization guaranteed to keep the peace (and of which the United States would be a leading, if not THE leading, member).  The crowds were enormous, the adulation everywhere.

And then, after spending months at Versailles leading the creation of a new Europe, he came home.  And he found that there was considerable opposition to American joining  the League, led by Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts.  And Wilson, disbelieving that there could be opposition to the League, and determined that the treaty he signed in France would be ratified by the Senate without any changes that would require a re-negotiation, decided to take the question to the American people.  In spite of clear exhaustion, he embarked on a coast to coast railroad campaign, making speech after speech, attending event after event.

His exhaustion continuing, he began to be plagued by serious headaches that would not diminish.  Finally, as the train was on its way east after its West Coast stops, Wilson collapsed paralyzed on his left side, the remainder of the appearances were cancelled and the train sped back to Washington.  The truth of his condition (in fact, the truth was hardly really known) was kept from the public; the President was exhausted it said, and he would be fine after he rested.

But it was not to be.  Whether it was a stroke, or some form of an embolism, 63 year old Woodrow Wilson would never be the same.  Yet he, and the public, and even Congress and his cabinet were kept in the dark.  The president was recovering, they were told, and able to continue to meet the responsibilities of his office, although he was not leaving the White House.  This is also what Wilson was told.

The fight against the League continued.  Lodge proposed some changes to the treaty that would enable him to support our entry.  Wilson’s Democratic advisers suggested that the changes, although not ideal, should be adopted.  Wilson remained adamant. The treaty failed in the Senate.  Wilson could not believe it.

There were suggestions that the president resign.  The cabinet departments operated without coordinated leadership.  Wilson remained paralyzed.  Eventually some visitors were allowed, and the severity of Wilson’s condition became known.  And it also became clear that Wilson was not carrying out the duties of the presidency.  And if Wilson were not so able, who was making the decisions, who would read and respond to the correspondence addressed to the President?  For a while, there were two people working in this capacity, Wilson’s private secretary Joseph Tumulty, and Wilson’s second wife, Edith.  Then, Edith had a falling out with Tumulty, and he was gone – back to practicing law in New York.  Edith, extraordinarily devoted to her husband, was in many respects running the country.

Wilson the savior of the world, was now Wilson the maligned. Why did he not resign?  Who does Edith Bolling Wilson think she is?

But no one took any formal action to remove the president of his duties.  And to a great extent this might have been because Wilson’s vice-president, Thomas Marshall (“what this country needs is a good five cents cigar”), was someone who was estranged from the president (and thus kept in the dark about the President’s condition), who was unwilling to take upon himself the role of President, and who may not have been the person that Congress would have wanted to see in the presidency.  So Wilson served out his term and the business of the country went unattended.

He did not give up on the American approval of an unchanged League treaty.  He was convinced that the country was behind him.  He was confident that the Democratic candidate to succeed him, James Cox (governor of Ohio), would beat Republican candidate Warren Harding.  He was disbelieving when told that this would not happen and was shocked that Harding received over 60% of the popular vote and 404 electoral votes.  But the country was tired, Cox was uninspiring, and Harding read the country right – the American people wanted a “return to normalcy”.

Following his death, the Wilsons moved into a house on S Street NW (still open to the public as the Woodrow Wilson House) and he and Edith lived there for the three years remaining of his life.  His condition never improved and even he was surprised that he outlived his energetic successor Warren Harding who died on a trip to California in August 1923.

“When the Cheering Stopped” details the life led by Wilson after he was stricken, both in and out of office.  To say that his situation would be an understatement.  Here was a man who had been so active, as a university professor and president, as a state governor, and as a president and world leader, an intellectual, scholar and writer, a communicator.  Cut down at age 63, never to recover.  Spending most of his time in bed, or being lifted to a chair.  Unable to move the left side of his body.  Often unable to hold his head up. Served by his wife, Edith, day and night for the more than four years of his illness.

Woodrow Wilson died in 1925 at age 67, his wife was only 52.  She lived another 36 years, dying in 1961 in the same S Street house.  She wrote her memoirs, which were published in 1939. I have a copy.  Maybe I will look at these next.





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