The Wilson White House

By Phyllis Lee Levin

Scribner. 606 pp. $35

The dust jacket of Phyllis Levin's readable book advertises it as "the first documented account of the woman who was president," a claim obviously not to be taken literally. Figuratively understood, however, the claim is warranted. Levin's is the fullest and most authoritative retelling to date of the story of Edith Bolling Wilson's self-anointed regency during her husband's devastating illness (October 1919 to March 1921).

On the morning of Oct. 2, 1919, following a Western speaking tour in which the ailing 28th president sought to rally support for the League of Nations "covenant" (which had been ill-advisedly integrated with the Versailles Treaty), Mrs. Wilson discovered that he had suffered a severe cerebral stroke. His left arm and leg were paralyzed. Emergency medical consultations followed, involving Wilson's personal physician, Adm. Cary T. Grayson, and others, including a distinguished neurologist, Francis X. Dercum.

The physicians confirmed the gravity of the president's stroke and prepared to notify press and public. But Mrs. Wilson, the former Edith Bolling Galt, whom Wilson had married after a whirlwind courtship following the death of the first Mrs. Wilson four years earlier, vetoed the idea. She would permit no public notification of the seriousness of the president's illness. It would be described as "nervous exhaustion," and the coverup begun that day continued for the remaining two years of Wilson's term. The true extent of a disability sufficient to trigger at least the temporary accession of the vice president would not fully be known for another seven decades. Mrs. Wilson, with the collaboration of the president's doctor and his faithful secretary, Joe Tumulty, functioned as her husband's regent while, at substantial cost to the public interest, the pretense of a functioning presidency was maintained.

The essence of Mrs. Wilson's usurpation lay in the absence of decision-making. She permitted only a handful of officials to see the president, and that only in the latter phase of his illness; and these audiences were often weirdly stage-managed in his darkened White House bedroom, usually in her inhibiting presence and that of Admiral Grayson. Many issues (e.g., the infamous "Red scare" raids of Attorney General Mitchell Palmer) were not brought to the president's attention, and it is uncertain whether he had the capacity to act even if he could have focused on them. When it became absolutely necessary to indicate what Wilson thought about a pending question, Mrs. Wilson would occasionally issue in her own handwriting a kind of bulletin from the sickroom reading "the president says" thus and so -- an unacceptable substitute for real decision memoranda.

The duration of Wilson's disability was unprecedented -- in the only comparable interregnum, James A. Garfield lingered for 80 days after being shot by an assassin in 1881. The concealment of the severity of President Reagan's gunshot wound a century later offers an instructive pendant to the Wilson and Garfield episodes, but one conditioned by the arrangements instituted by the 25th Amendment in 1967. That amendment provides a process for the temporary assumption of presidential duties by the vice president when a president is ailing or disabled. (For more on the subject, see Presidential Disability, edited by James F. Toole and Robert J. Joynt [Univ. of Rochester, 2001], and Arthur Link's "Woodrow Wilson: A Cautionary Tale," in the Wake Forest Law Review, Vol. 30, Number 3, 1995.)

Standard historical accounts have made familiar the epic struggle between Wilson and his nemesis, Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, over U.S. membership in the League of Nations. What is often scanted is the extent to which Wilson's illness and his wife's presumption colored and conditioned that struggle. Crotchety and capricious, prostrate in the huge Lincoln bed, his native stubbornness intensified by rage and impaired circulation, Wilson lacked the energy and political presence to push the League covenant through the Senate without reservations he deemed "dishonorable," and he resisted all compromise and anathematized those who urged it. The distinguished former British foreign secretary Earl Grey was dispatched as British ambassador to help out but was discourteously snubbed for being soft on Lodge's reservations. American participation in the League was lost and, with it, the possibility of avoiding the rise of Nazism.

Possibility is the key word: The seeds of the Hitler evil were sown in the punitive provisions of the Versailles Treaty, not the America-less League. The UN experience suggests, moreover, that while a parliament of man may help subdue mass conflict it cannot -- or hasn't so far -- repealed nationalism or Great Power politics.

Who, then, was this "first woman president"? Edith Bolling Galt Wilson was a robust, self-assured and engaging woman, originally from small-town Virginia and the widow of a prominent Washington jeweler. Her primary loyalty was personal, a blind devotion to her husband and to the illusion that he would someday rise from his sickbed and resume the prophet's mantle -- an illusion he shared. Edith Wilson's obsession with maintaining this El Cid act matched Wilson's own obsession with a pristine League of Nations, exactly as he envisioned it. Without any clear appreciation of the huge stakes involved, she uncritically seconded her husband's refusal to consult political allies or to hear of compromise.

The author's judgment on Edith Bolling Wilson is severe. "On her vigorous temperament," she writes, "introspection never cast its ripening light. She had been at the center of momentous events to which she brought a provincial gaze and little humility." Levin rubs her verdict in by speculating that the first Mrs. Wilson (the softer and more intelligent Ellen Axson of Rome, Ga.) might have handled the emergency less self-centeredly. Obviously, all this is disputable. What is not disputable about this story of constitutional irregularity is its continuing relevance. It was the unsettling view of the late Prof. Arthur Link, Wilson's premier biographer, that the 25th Amendment might not have prevented the White House mischief of 1919-21. Even today, a coterie of presidential aides, collaborating with a willful presidential spouse (Edith Wilson was not the last of that breed), might conceal a grave presidential disability. The 25th Amendment, coupled with far less deferential press and political manners, has made such a scenario unlikely, but not erased it.

Edith and Woodrow is a sophisticated book, informed in its grasp of political and constitutional subtleties though unduly garrulous on the biographical foreground -- the reader must traverse 300 pages before arriving at the core story. The author may also be a bit credulous about medical monitoring of sitting presidents. There are distinguished physicians and psychologists, some of whose writings she cites, who dream of mandating by law a panel of medical wise men to certify, yearly, whether presidents are physically and mentally up to the job. They are not discouraged by the assurance of others, versed in White House history and Washington politics, that presidential fitness will, and should, remain a political judgment. Doctors may propose; officials will dispose.

In any case, the scandal of the Wilson affair is that, save for Secretary of State Robert Lansing (who was unceremoniously fired for calling informal cabinet sessions), no constitutional officer in 1919 had the nerve or sense of duty to challenge the tiny cabal guarding the presidential bedchamber -- certainly not the timid vice president, Thomas Marshall, who is remembered now only for saying that what the country needed was a good five-cent cigar. At a time of acute domestic and international crisis, the country was governed by a usurpatious coterie, captained by "the first woman to be president of the United States." *

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is professor of journalism and humanities at Washington and Lee University. He served on the Link-Toole study group on presidential disability.

President Woodrow Wilson with his future wife, Edith, at the World Series in Philadelphia, Oct. 17, 1915.