April 19, 2015

presidential fact #31: a flaky president

A handful of times throughout his life, Winnie Harding went to spend some me time at Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan.

Battle Creek Sanitarium was run by the Kellogg brothers, one of whom invented Corn Flakes as something to feed the patients. I quite recommend the episode of Drunk History that tells the story.

 

April 13, 2015

presidential fact #30

When Warren G. Harding's father, George, was a Union soldier, he visited the White House and shook Lincoln's hand.

(Warren G. Harding was the first president born after the Civil War.)

April 06, 2015

you probably think this national anthem's about you, don't you?

I've had just about enough of these presidents and their secret diseases! Divulge your debilitating health problems, you megalomaniacs! This isn't tsarist Russia!

When Wilson returned from Paris in the spring or summer of 1919, he faced an uphill battle both politically and physically. The peace process had exhausted him, and his doctor was begging him to take some time off, but he returned to find that Henry Cabot Lodge (who is just ONE OF THOSE SENATORS) was determined that Congress not ratify the Treaty of Versailles.

While Lodge worked the votes in Congress, Wilson decided to go on a whistlestop tour of the US to rally support for the Treaty and the League of Nations from the people themselves, whose support he had lost during his months abroad. His doctor, Grayson, begged him not to do this. He'd been having what Grayson called "cerebral episodes" with increasing frequency, and going on a grueling train trip in the middle of the summer with stops to give long speeches, seemed like a recipe for disaster. Wilson couldn't be dissuaded, and basically told Grayson that he was willing to kill himself for the League.

The trip was cut short when Wilson collapsed after a speech in Pueblo, Colorado, and Wilson rushed backed to Washington to rest. In October of 1919 Wilson had a serious stroke, and was bedridden for months. He didn't leave the White House grounds for something like six months. He didn't speak to any of his Cabinet until February. He saw almost nobody besides his wife, Grayson, White House usher Ike Hoover, a nurse, and various White House staff. But absolutely no government officials.

During this time, his wife Edith acted as his gatekeeper, taking messages for him and deciding which of them he needed to know about (very few). The country was informed that the president was sick and needed to rest, but nobody knew exactly how serious it was. The Cabinet kept meeting without him, which made Wilson mad, to which they responded SOMEONE NEEDS TO RUN THE COUNTRY, DUDE.

Throughout this time, Wilson would occasionally toy with the idea of ceding power to his vice president, a nice dude from Indiana from Marshall. But he and his doctor decided that he was able to "adequately perform" his duties as president, a decision he made based on the very limited view of what was going on in the government he got from Edith. Because Edith only told him about the issues he could easily handle from his bed, he assumed that he was easily handling the presidency. He was not. Federal appointments stayed open for months, new ambassadors couldn't start their jobs because Wilson couldn't accept their credentials, and the secretary of the interior hired a young guy named J. Edgar Hoover, who started wantonly deporting Russians on suspicion of communism.

Wilson was a great man, and the fact that his body failed him at the most crucial moment of his presidency is truly a tragedy, but it makes me mad when the presidents do this. I've talked about the presidential gaze before, how entering the office gives you a higher level of perspective, but I also think it convinces these dudes that they are innately, divinely presidential. Wilson convinced himself that even in a drastically debilitated state, he needed to be the president.

Then he swung from telling Grayson he was going to cede power to Marshall, to saying that he was going to run for a third term, in case you needed to know how much denial he was in.


The Democrats got slaughtered in the midterms, and Wilson regained just enough strength by mid-1920 to be what biographer Berg called "the lamest of all lame ducks in American history," which is a Wilson-can't-walk-without-a-cane joke. Although Edith and Wilson maintained that his mind remained sharp for the duration of his presiency, Grayson and Ike Hoover both later admitted that he was never himself after Pueblo.

The best thing to happen to Wilson at the end of his life was that his successor, Harding, was a bona fide disaster, so public opinion rushed back to him almost immediately. By the time he died in 1924, he was the most popular man in America again.

April 05, 2015

presidential fact #29

The election of 1920 saw 3 future presidents on the ballot. Republican nominee Warren G. Harding and vice presidential nominee Calvin Coolidge, and Democratic vice presidential nominee Franklin D. Roosevelt.

April 02, 2015

devastated

Woodrow Wilson had a surprisingly interesting first term, considering that no one ever talks about it. His second term, which saw him enter WWI and then work towards the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations, is what we know him for. But in his first term he passed an impressive amount of reform legislation, codifying the transition to a world power and first world economy that Roosevelt and Taft had been talking about for years. Not at all bad for someone who became president after only a few years as governor of New Jersey, and whose main campaign strategy was to let Roosevelt and Taft tear each other apart.

Every president hits their peak, the zenith of a large, historic life. The lucky ones hit it after they're done being president (Quincy Adams), the unfortunate hit it before their presidency (Grant), but most of them hit it somewhere right in the middle (Wilson).

Wilson is rare in that you can point at the exact moment his presidency peaked — his "make the world safe for democracy' speech. That speech really killed, globally. And he rode its goodwill through the war, and then everything started falling apart.

Wilson's decision to spend the better part of a year in Paris for the peace process was and is still hotly debated and criticized. It didn't seem to make anybody happy. Americans felt abandoned and Europeans felt condescended to. The delegations from France, Italy, and Great Britain couldn't stomach that America had sacrificed the least in the war and yet were trying to run the peace process. France, in particular, was mad that Wilson wouldn't go on a tour of her devastated lands, to see what the war had done to them. Wilson's response:

"I don't want to see the devastated regions. As a boy, I saw the country through which Sherman marched to the sea. The pathway lay right through my people's properties. I know what happened, and I know the bitterness and hatreds which were engendered. I don't want to get mad over here because I think there ought to be one person at that peace table who isn't mad. I'm afraid if I visited the devastated areas I would get mad, too, and I'm not going to permit myself to do so."

Isn't he something?

He might actually have been going loony mad though. He had history of high blood pressure and migraines, and would go on to have a serious strokes, and some people who have examined his medical history and symptoms in retrospect believe he started having a series of mini-strokes during the peace process. He would at times be absent-minded and paranoid, at other times giddy and childlike, and became obsessed with rearranging furniture. It's possible these are all the effects of an extremely high-pressure situation, but many believe (and biographer Berg seems to have thrown his hat in with this theory) that he was experiencing neurological damage from strokes or early onset dementia.

His increasing inflexible and irascible behavior made the peace process more difficult, but he did get through it. Unfortunately, the downward slide had already begun.

January 04, 2015

presidential fact #28

The first White House press conference was held by the newly-elected Wilson in the Oval Office on March 15, 1913.

November 04, 2014

Woodrow Wilson and the Seven Sisters

After attending Princeton, which he lo-o-o-o-o-oved, Tommy W. Wilson started his graduate work at the University of Virginia, where he formally shed his first name and started going by Woodrow. After only a year he moved back to Georgia to practice law, which he didn't enjoy. We've entered a period of Wilson's life where he doesn't enjoy anything, because he sees himself as bound for greatness and chafes at having to pay his dues in any capacity. (This is a common phase for many future presidents — JQA spent a decade or so in a similar huff — that would be more ingratiating if they weren't eventually proven right.)

After a few years of law Wilson enrolled at Johns Hopkins to pursue a doctorate. Although he loved campus life —especially being in charge of as many student activities as possible — he was less focused on scholarship than he was on his new girlfriend, whom he would marry in 1885.

He still had a year left on his doctorate but, as a newlywed, he felt pressed to provide for his wife, and took a professorial job at the newly founded Bryn Mawr, an all-women's college.

As a graduate of Wellesley (go Blue!), I was excited to find a president who had worked at one of the Seven Sisters, until I realized that Wilson was a big pill about it.

Woodrow Wilson with Bryn Mawr's first graduating class, 1886. (top row, far right)
He considered a women's college beneath him and reportedly phoned in most of his lectures, sometimes just reading aloud from magazine articles he had written. However, having not officially finished his doctorate he couldn't be picky. Luckily, his books and articles were garnering him a reputation as a historian, and Johns Hopkins was inclined to let him finish his doctorate in absentia. Once he had done that, new job offers from "real" colleges came pouring in. He had signed a contract with Bryan Mawr, but it stated that he would be given an assistant "when practical." Because he hadn't been given one as soon as he expected, he claimed breach of contract and left to teach at Wesleyan, and then a few years later at Princeton.

Not a shining moment for Woodrow Wilson. A plaque at Bryn Mawr commemorating his time there was casually removed about 10 years ago.