…America’s entry into the first world war tipped the scales. By December 1918, it was clear that the United States and its allies (Britain, France, Italy) had gained the upper hand in the fight against the Central powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey). President Wilson sailed to Europe, the first sitting president to visit the continent. In Paris, he attended a conference aimed at establishing postwar terms with Germany, while laying the groundwork for what the president hoped would be a peaceful and just world order.
Other than a brief return at the end of February, Wilson would spend the next six months in Europe, by far the longest period of time any sitting president has spent outside the United States. It was worth it, the president believed, since it culminated in his signing of the Treaty of Versailles, which established the League of Nations, a collaborative international body formed to prevent future conflict. With the ink on the treaty dry, all Wilson now needed two-thirds of the Senate to approve it. Without Senate backing of the treaty, the president’s signature was worthless.
But conservatives, alarmed that the Versailles treaty would require the United States to cede some of its sovereign powers to the League of Nations, balked. The president took the rare step of appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to argue for ratification.
Wilson’s pleas fell on largely deaf ears. Both the Senate and House in 1918 were controlled by Republicans, and Wilson, frustrated, decided to go over their heads and take his case directly to the American people, with a cross-country railroad tour. But the president was not in the best of health, and Edith Wilson, worried about the toll such a trip would take on her frail husband, was strongly opposed. So was the president’s personal physician, Admiral Grayson, who objected strenuously. Wilson’s response: “I cannot put my personal safety, my health, in the balance against my duty — I must go,” and that was it.
On September 2, they departed on the grueling journey, making multiple stops a day so the president could address the crowds. It was too much. He began to suffer from asthma attacks and splitting headaches that nearly blinded him. “Let’s stop,” an increasingly alarmed first lady cried. “No!” was her husband’s stubborn response. The president made it over three weeks before finally collapsing from sheer exhaustion in Colorado. He was rushed back to the White House.
Aides had worried about Wilson for months. His memory had been slipping and he talked to himself; now, chief usher Ike Hoover, welcoming the president home, noticed that “he looked a little peaked and seemed to have lost some of his spirit.” That was September 29th.
Three days later, Hoover, in his office, received an urgent call from Mrs. Wilson. “Please get Doctor Grayson, the president is very sick.” The admiral rushed to the president’s private quarters. Wilson had collapsed onto the white-tiled floor of his bathroom; Mrs. Wilson had put a pillow under his head and covered him with a blanket. Grayson and the first lady moved the president into his bedroom, struggling to lift his 5'11" frame and put it gently into the Lincoln bed. With the first lady watching anxiously, Grayson examined him. The president had suffered a stroke, caused by a blood clot in a brain artery. It left the left side of Wilson’s body paralyzed. “An arm and one leg were useless,” Mrs. Wilson said, “but, thank God, the brain was clear and untouched.” The lower left side of the president’s face also drooped, and he had trouble expressing himself.
Emerging from the bathroom, Grayson told Hoover, who was waiting anxiously outside: “My God, the President is paralyzed.” When Hoover first saw the president, “he looked as if he were dead.”
That afternoon, Mrs. Wilson and Grayson asked other doctors to examine the president as well. They were unsparing in their consensus: President Wilson was “seriously disabled, both in a medical and constitutional sense.” His “thought processes nor his conduct in office would ever be the same again.”
In modern times, even the tiniest of incidents involving the chief executive does not go unnoticed by the press. John F. Kennedy, once questioned about a Band-Aid on his finger, admitted that he had been cutting bread. Barack Obama split his lip playing basketball in 2010 and it was a major story for a few days. But on the morning of October 2, 1919, the president of the United States suffered a crippling, and near-fatal stroke — and the crisis, from the very beginning, was enveloped in an “air of secrecy.” Those in the know were determined to keep it that way. The communications strategy from the outset was simple: “no details, no explanations.”
It was “the beginning of the deception of the American people,” Hoover would write in his 1934 biography, published posthumously. Never was a conspiracy “so pointedly and so artistically formed.”
While no one beyond the tight circle of the first lady, Hoover, and assorted doctors and nurses knew the president’s true condition, it quickly became evident — based on Wilson’s sudden disappearance from the rest of the world — that something was terribly wrong. Fed misleading information by Dr. Grayson, the Washington Post reported the day after Wilson’s collapse that the president was merely suffering from “nervous exhaustion.” But the White House was silent on the real story. Days turned into weeks, and by Christmas 1919, the president, now sporting a long white beard, began the difficult task of learning to walk again. His ability to speak also returned, though at first mumbling was the best he could manage. Throughout, the White House response remained the same: silence. It would remain this way for the next eighteen months.
The silence even extended to the president’s senior advisors. Secretary of State Robert Lansing, demanding answers but getting none, suggested to the president’s private secretary, Joseph Tumulty, that Vice President ThomasR. Marshall assume Wilson’s duties. He began to read the relevant passage in the Constitution: “In case of the removal of the President from office, or of his death, resignation or inability to discharge the powers and duties of the said office, the same shall devolve on the Vice President.” Tumulty was enraged: “While Woodrow Wilson is lying in the White House on the broad of his back I will not be a party to ousting him. He has been too kind, too loyal, and too wonderful to me to receive such treatment at my hands.”
Marshall himself — who had more reason than anyone beyond the First Family to know the president’s true condition — was shut out. Mrs. Wilson suggested that allowing Marshall to take over would speed Wilson’s recovery, but one of the president’s doctors, Francis Dercum, thought it a bad idea. If the president were to resign — a first in American history — “the greatest incentive to recovery is gone,” Dercum believed.
And so while a handful of people, elected by no one, discussed in utter secrecy who should run the US government, Vice President Marshall went about his business. But just in case Wilson died, the decision was made to tell him the president’s true condition, via a reporter who could be trusted. Marshall thought about assuming Wilson’s duties on his own, but decided against it. “I could throw this country into civil war by seizing the White House, but I won’t,” he told his wife.41 But he also said if Congress or the courts ordered him to take over, he would do so.
So Woodrow Wilson, despite his grave illness, remained president in name. But who was running the government? Who was running the country?Dercum advised the first lady to screen all paperwork and visitors. “Have everything come to you, weigh the importance of each matter, and see if it is possible by consultations with the respective heads of the departments to solve them without the guidance of your husband”
It was a selfish course of action, putting the perceived needs of one man above those of the country. The first lady herself admitted as much, saying that her top priority “was first my beloved husband whose life I was trying to save,” and “after that he was President of the United States.”
21 Presidents, 21 rooms, 21 insider stories. That’s “Under This Roof,” by Paul Brandus of the award-winning White House-based news service West Wing Reports. Get your copy now on Amazon and Barnes & Noble — and follow Paul on Twitter: @WestWingReport