Edith Wilson and the Secret Presidency

Wilson’s first posed photograph after his stroke in June 1920. Photo Credit- By Harris & Ewing – Library of Congress

Woodrow Wilson was tired.   He had been negotiating the Treaty of Versailles, planning for the League of Nations, campaigning for the US inclusion into said League of Nations and planned a speaking tour of the United States in support of this effort.  He had suffered from a terrible bout with influenza in April 1919, and had not allowed himself the opportunity to rest.  By September of the same year, Wilson was noticeably thinner and paler and his asthma was growing worse.  He also complained of terrible headaches.  Instead of taking the rest that he obviously needed, Wilson pushed on.

On the evening of September 25, 1919, Wilson collapsed after speaking in Pueblo, Colorado.  His wife, Edith, found him in his room with the muscles in his face twitching and complaining of severe nausea.  They canceled the speaking tour and rushed Wilson back to Washington where he had a massive stroke a week later.  Wilson collapsed on the way to the bathroom and Edith had to drag him back to bed.  Then she called the chief usher to get Wilson’s doctor, Dr. Cary T. Grayson, who pronounced the president paralyzed.  According to Dr. Grayson’s notes found much later, the president was paralyzed on his left side and blind in his right eye.  On top of that, his emotional state was volatile at best.  On top of this, Wilson suffered a urinary tract infection, which was life threatening.  What should have happened is Wilson should have resigned and his Vice President, Thomas R. Marshall, should have taken over under the Constitution’s Article II, Section 1, Clause 6.  However, that did not happen.

Edith did not trust the president’s staff since their ham handed attempt to keep the president from marrying her.  Wilson had been widowed barely a year prior to meeting Edith, and wanted to marry her three months after being introduced.  During their courtship, Wilson asked for Edith’s evaluation on the loyalty of Cabinet members and her opinions on classified information, much to his advisers chagrin.  To stop this whirlwind romance from turning into a marriage, they leaked a series of fake love letters from Wilson to a lady named Mary Peck.  They hoped Edith would become angry and dump the president.  No dice.  She married him, and she was there to stay working alongside the president and attending meetings with him.  She was not about to step aside now.

Claiming that resigning would “depress” her husband, she and Dr. Grayson perpetrated a hoax they called “stewardship”.  Dr. Cary sent out carefully crafted medical bulletins that told everyone Wilson was recovering and fine.  In the meantime, he would be working exclusively from his bedroom suite.  Any papers or decisions must go through Edith, who would “take them to the president” then reemerge with his “decision”.  So, the most powerful men in this country sat in the West Sitting Room hallway waiting for Edith to pronounce the president’s word on all important matters.  She later described her actions by saying, ““So began my stewardship. I studied every paper, sent from the different Secretaries or senators, and tried to digest and present in tabloid form the things that, despite my vigilance, had to go to the President. I myself never made a single decision regarding the disposition of public affairs.  The only decision that was mine was what was important and what was not, and the very important decision of when to present matters to my husband.”  

Edith’s determination of what was “important” was sketchy at best.  Without Wilson to make appearances in the Senate, his plan to win over the Senate to the League of Nations was scuppered.  The British Ambassador came over to help Wilson negotiate for his version of the League of Nations, but Edith offended him when she demanded a minor aid be fired.  He had made an off color joke at her expense and she was offended.  The Ambassador went home without doing any negotiating.  As a result of all this, the US did not join the League of Nations and it ultimately failed.

Despite all their plans, word of the president’s ill health began to leak out by February 1920.  However, they were able to keep up the charade until March 1921, when Warren G. Harding took office.  Wilson died February 3, 1924, and zealously guarded his memory.  She denied access to any papers she deemed questionable and maintained strict control over the script of the 1944 biopic “Wilson”.  She died on December 24, 1961.  It was not until 1967 that the 25th amendment was ratified, outlining more specific means of a transfer of power when a president dies or is disabled.

ER