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A President's Illness Kept Under Wraps

Newly revealed documents show how Wilson's inner circle, including physician Grayson, right, tried to conceal his poor health, which preceded a major stroke in 1919. The 28th president was debilitated for the rest of his term.
Newly revealed documents show how Wilson's inner circle, including physician Grayson, right, tried to conceal his poor health, which preceded a major stroke in 1919. The 28th president was debilitated for the rest of his term. (Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library)

"This is the worst instance of presidential disability we've ever had," said John Milton Cooper, a Wilson scholar at the University of Wisconsin. "We stumbled along . . . without a fully functioning president" for a year and a half, he said.

The public was largely left in the dark about Wilson's condition. The official White House line was that the president was suffering from "nervous exhaustion." Other presidents have also concealed health problems, historians say, but the secrecy that enveloped Wilson's illness seems difficult to imagine today.

Grayson died in 1938. Years ago, his family gave Arthur S. Link, a preeminent Wilson scholar, access to his diary. Much of it was published in Link's collection of Wilson papers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, offering historians an in-depth look at the troubled end of Wilson's presidency and how his health could have affected major events.

Link's grandson is one of the historians now sifting through the Grayson papers to see what else they reveal about the president. Arthur Link III and other researchers were struck by this letter from Grayson to his wife dated Aug. 19, 1915:

" My number one patient in this house had an accident last night with one of his eyes -- the good one, which is bad now. I am hurrying off to Philadelphia with him at six o'clock tomorrow morning to consult an eye specialist. We are going by motor. I think we can make the trip less noticeable in this way -- . . . [T]he papers will read something like this: The President made his annual visit to the oculist etc etc."

The letter was written during Wilson's first term at a time when many historians believe he was relatively healthy. During Wilson's second term, Grayson wrote another letter to his wife Sept. 7, 1918, that may be of historical note. It appears to refer to a second operation, similar to the previous one that Grayson probably performed that year on Wilson's nose.

Researchers were also struck by two photographs that experts say show Wilson at his last Cabinet meeting in 1921. In one photo, he is holding a cane; in the other, the cane appears to have been erased.

"They were flying by the seat of their pants, doing damage control," Link said. "It's fun to watch."

Historians say the documents help shed light on what can happen when a president falls ill. The 25th Amendment spells out how a vice president can become acting president in the event of a presidential disability. But that amendment was ratified in 1967, nearly a half-century after Wilson left office.

A letter Grayson sent from Europe to his friend Samuel Ross on April 14, 1919, shows that Wilson's doctor knew the stakes:

"The president was suddenly taken violently sick with the influenza at a time when the whole of civilization seemed to be in the balance. And without him and his guidance Europe would certainly have turned to Bolshevism and anarchy. From your side of the water you can not realize on what thin ice European civilization has been skating. I just wish you could spend a day with me behind the scenes here. Some day perhaps I may be able to tell the world what a close call we had."

Now the papers are gone from the Grayson family basement, attic and closets. But Cary Grayson Jr. still has family stories to share. He recalled how his older brother Gordon went with their father to the White House to cheer the president after the 1919 stroke, sitting at Wilson's feet while they watched Western movies. Sometimes they went for drives with him.

Grayson himself had a stroke in August. He used a cane as he walked around the wooded hills where his father used to go fox hunting. He said he is relieved that the papers have a place in history.


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