Manuel Roig-Franzia is a Washington Post reporter and the author of “The Rise of Marco Rubio,” a biography of the Florida senator and 2016 presidential candidate.
As battleground states trickled, then gushed, into Donald Trump’s column and the electoral map turned redder and redder, the New York Times scrapped its “Madam President” front page.
Later, a photo made the rounds on social media of the paper’s design editors huddled around a screen, reenvisioning what might have been an “iconic” A1. Newsweek’s prematurely distributed “Madam President” commemorative cover, sent out by one of the magazine’s licensees, had to be recalled.
The startling defeat of Hillary Clinton seemingly consigned the notion of a woman running things at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to the realm of prime-time television and movies — for now, at least. One woman, however, came about as close as any woman ever has to being a female commander in chief. She was Edith Bolling Wilson, the second wife of the 28th president, Woodrow Wilson. Her legacy is revisited in William Hazelgrove’s useful and crisply written, yet ultimately unpersuasive history: “Madam President: The Secret Presidency of Edith Wilson.”
Edith was the first woman to hold a driver’s license in Washington, according to Hazelgrove, and she proudly laid claim to being a descendant of Pocahantas. Her life was transformed in late 1919 when her husband suffered a serious stroke, and his attending physician, Francis Dercum, laid out a plan: “Have everything come to you. . . . See if it is possible by consultations with the respective heads of the Departments to solve them without the guidance of your husband.”
The president retreated from the public eye for months, and his wife, as Hazelgrove copiously documents, began to filter the deluge of correspondence that came his way from various government agencies. The first lady’s control of the flow of information did not go unnoticed by an increasingly skeptical Congress. Sen. Albert Fall (R-N.M.), an ardent antagonist of the Democratic president, declared: “We have a petticoat government! Wilson is not acting! Mrs. Wilson is President!”
Hazelgrove posits that in the decades since, there has been a “cover-up” to conceal the first lady’s role during her husband’s long illness, a deception in which “historians have been complicit.”
If that is true, one of their best allies in the snow job is Edith herself. To his credit, Hazelgrove cites her memoir, where she writes, “I myself never made a single decision regarding the disposition of public affairs.”
Still, Hazelgrove isn’t buying it, and the evidence he presents is enough to remind us that Edith was, at a minimum, an exceptionally consequential figure in her husband’s White House. As the president’s infirmity deepened and the business of the White House stalled, government officials took to addressing their letters about presidential business directly to her. The proposed State of the Union text was sent to her, and her handwriting appeared on important papers. She pitched the agriculture secretary on switching to treasury, though she said she was communicating her husband’s wishes.
Edith’s primary motivation, in Hazelgrove’s telling, was a hope that by insulating her husband from stress, she might have been able to save his life. Her guide in this effort was Wilson’s confidant and physician, Cary Grayson, who kept the press at bay with vague statements about the president’s health while advising that the ailing leader “shouldn’t be bothered with any matters of official character. . . . It was to be a complete rest, not partial rest.”
The public’s expectations about a woman’s role in the White House came into focus in the hubbub after Woodrow Wilson met with the Queen of Belgium, one of the few people allowed to see him. Mistaken reports that he wore a “torn sweater” for their chat (it was apparently only a “worn” garment) prompted many women to send yarn to Edith. She was expected to stitch together her husband’s wardrobe — not his policies.
Yet, outside the public eye, she was enmeshed in the daily combat of governing, particularly during the ferocious debate over her husband’s failed proposal for the United States to join the League of Nations, an alliance that Wilson needed Congress to ratify. The president’s foes on Capitol Hill countered with a list of changes — dubbed “reservations” — that would have altered the agreement Wilson had made when he signed the Treaty of Versailles after World War I. But, according to Hazelgrove, Edith “blocked the majority of entreaties to compromise. . . . In doing so, she also deprived him of the necessary input to adjust his position.”
Eventually, Hazelgrove writes, Edith relented and asked her husband to consider compromise. Her recollection of that moment in her memoir contributes to the impression that the president was still in charge: “Little girl, don’t you desert me. . . . Better a thousand times to go down fighting than to dip your colors to dishonorable compromise.”
A. Scott Berg, a biographer of Woodrow Wilson, wrote that Edith Wilson “failed to acknowledge the commanding nature of her role, that in determining the daily agenda and formulating arguments thereon, she executed the physical and most of the mental duties of the office.” She “did not become, as some have asserted, ‘the first female President of the United States,’ ” Berg wrote, “but she came close.”
What Berg is describing — and what Hazelgrove, despite his most fervent efforts, ends up illustrating most convincingly — sounds like Edith playing the role of a Madam Chief of Staff more than a Madam President.
A woman has never held that vital position. In this post-Clinton world, it’s worth pondering whether a headline trumpeting the first female White House chief of staff might make the papers before the one that evaporated on election night. It might be a place to start.
By William Hazelgrove
Regnery History. 324 pp. $29.99