Unless readers are aficionados of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, they may possess only vague knowledge that a debilitating stroke incapacitated him in his administration’s final year and that his wife Edith became the unofficial “acting president.” This intriguing tale of how a first lady, with minimal formal education and no government experience, effectively took the reins from the partially paralyzed chief executive and guided his White House, from October 1919 to March 1921, is as riveting as it is improbable.
By virtue of her DNA, author Rebecca Boggs Roberts is well acquainted with Washington’s power dynamics. The daughter of the late political commentator Cokie Roberts and granddaughter of the late House Democratic Majority Leader Hale Boggs, Rebecca also counts on her family tree grandmother Lindy, who served nine terms in Congress after Hale disappeared, and was declared dead, following a 1972 plane crash. Equally genetic, given her father Steven Roberts’s journalistic career, is Rebecca’s flair for writing crisp and engaging narratives. Her book “Untold Power: The Fascinating Rise and Complex Legacy of First Lady Edith Wilson” is quite simply a compelling yarn.
How did Edith Bolling, born and raised in Wytheville, Va., a sleepy town nestled in post-bellum Appalachia, ultimately become one of the most powerful first ladies in American history? As a teenager, she followed her married sister to Washington and embraced the cultural and social life of the booming Gay Nineties city. In 1896, she married the successful, if unexciting, owner of a thriving jewelry store who was almost a decade older than the new Mrs. Edith Bolling Galt. He died a dozen years later, leaving Edith a widow of some means at age 35, unable to bear children after her only pregnancy resulted in a difficult birth and the death of the Galts’ infant son.
Unlike most women of her era, Edith lived independently, traveling abroad when the spirit moved her, tooling around the nation’s capital in an electric automobile (as the first woman to earn a D.C. driver’s license) and eschewing large soirees for intimate dinners with extended family. She had little interest in politics, opposed women’s suffrage and declined a friend’s invitation to attend Woodrow Wilson’s 1913 inaugural parade and a presidential tea. A friend, the White House physician Cary Grayson, introduced her to the grieving president shortly after Wilson’s first wife, Ellen, died of kidney disease in the second year of his first term.
Although a strait-laced Presbyterian and stodgy academic, Wilson immediately bonded with Edith, 16 years his junior, finding her beautiful, stylish, charming and vivacious. The merry widow added gaiety to his life, and he was as smitten as a teenage schoolboy. Realizing that his lovesickness would appear unseemly so soon after his first wife’s passing, the president initially confined his ardent courtship to secret assignations with the more restrained Edith.
Roberts’s description of Wilson’s wooing springs to life through her careful research of the love notes the couple exchanged almost daily. In addition, the author skillfully deconstructs the second Mrs. Wilson’s 1939 memoir, the first book of its kind penned by a former first lady. This biography is the only one to reflect the recently transcribed memoir chapters written in Edith’s scribbled penmanship and preserved at her birthplace.
The Wilsons’ 1915 marriage cemented a fruitful partnership, as the president’s new spouse sustained him through World War I, accompanied him to the Paris peace talks and supported his dogged efforts to secure Senate approval of the Treaty of Versailles. Establishing what modern political scientists now label “the rhetorical presidency,” Woodrow Wilson firmly believed that he could lead Congress and the people by speaking to them directly and in person. It was his overly ambitious cross-country whistle-stop tour that exhausted the president and induced a catastrophic cerebral hemorrhage, paralyzing his left side, affecting his speech and weakening his cognitive ability.
Roberts’s storytelling soars as she leads the reader through Edith’s machinations to hide her husband’s disabilities while maintaining his White House’s functions. She manipulated the Cabinet, Vice President Thomas Marshall and members of Congress to disguise the worst of the president’s symptoms, while making it appear that he maintained control over his faculties and public policy. She literally became his left hand, holding down documents as he signed them with his dominant and unaffected right hand.
From his 1919 stroke until his death in 1924, Edith Wilson maintained the fiction that her husband was functioning normally. She spent the remainder of her long life promoting his legacy as an advocate for freedom at home and abroad. One of her last public appearances, before her death in December 1961 at age 89, was to meet with President John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office when he signed the bill creating the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Commission.
In that sense, Edith was no different from all the modern first ladies (including Eleanor Roosevelt, Mamie Eisenhower, Jacqueline Kennedy, Pat Nixon, Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton) who supported their debilitated husbands, laid low by illness or scandal, and tried to solidify their legacies if they outlived them. Yet even the influential Roosevelt and Clinton never became “acting presidents.” As Roberts relates, it was JFK’s assassination that prompted the 25th Amendment’s ratification in 1967, providing for the vice president to assume the presidency upon the chief executive’s documented incapacitation. We can be grateful that Edith Wilson’s unprecedented and unofficial substitution for her husband demonstrated the need for such a constitutional remedy for presidential illness.
Barbara A. Perry, the Gerald L. Baliles professor and presidential studies director at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, is the author of “Jacqueline Kennedy: First Lady of the New Frontier” and “Rose Kennedy: The Life and Times of a Political Matriarch.”
The Fascinating Rise and Complex Legacy of First Lady Edith Wilson
By Rebecca Boggs Roberts
Viking. 302 pp. $30
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