wilson and edith

Ninety-four years ago today, on October 2, 1919, President Woodrow Wilson suffered a massive stroke that left half of his body paralyzed for life. Wilson had already had several strokes and stroke-like events–some medical historians suggest as many as eight, going back to 1896–but this was the one that finally destroyed his hold on power and arguably changed the course of American, and world, history.

In the fall of 1919, Wilson was campaigning relentlessly for ratification by the Republican-controlled Senate of the Treaty of Versailles, the settlement he had personally negotiated following the end of World War I. It was a hard sell. Tired of dealing with recalcitrant Republicans who he saw as out to destroy him politically (gee, I can think of someone else who had that problem), he decided to take his case directly to the voters and embarked on an ambitious whistle-stop train campaign across the United States. In Colorado on September 25 he either had a stroke or something like it, and had to cancel his trip and return to Washington to recover. There, at the White House, the “big one”–a much more massive stroke–left Wilson virtually a living corpse. This was the single most serious medical condition ever suffered by a sitting President.

The severity of Wilson’s condition was kept literally a state secret. His doctors, supposedly concerned for his mental health, conspired to tell the press and the country that he really wasn’t that bad, that he remained in full control of his faculties and was fully capable of carrying on the duties of Chief Executive. Nothing could be further from the truth. Wilson couldn’t walk or move his left side. He had sight only in the right half of his right eye. He couldn’t even hold a pen,  much less sign his name, without considerable assistance. But for political considerations, there was absolutely no talk of turning over power to the Vice-President, Thomas R. Marshall.

edith wilson

Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, the second of her husband’s two First Ladies.

As is well known, Wilson’s wife, Edith, stepped in to help. She described her role as “stewardship.” Today we might call her White House Chief of Staff. She alone decided what documents Wilson would see and what information he would be given. She insisted she never made a decision herself, but only brought matters to her husband that she had decided he needed to act upon. Any student of the modern presidency will tell you that this is tantamount to the presidency itself. Indeed, some historians have argued that Edith Wilson should be considered something very close to the first female President of the United States.

It’s worth bearing in mind–and this is not mentioned much in discussion of Wilson’s condition–that she had been married to him for a comparatively short time. Wilson’s first wife, Ellen, died in August 1914, just as World War I was beginning in Europe. Wilson met Edith Galt, a widow, in March 1915, and they fell in love quickly. He is one of only three U.S. Presidents to marry while in office, the others being Grover Cleveland and John Tyler. Edith was no stranger to executive decisions, having carried on her first husband’s business after his unexpected death in 1908.

Edith Wilson seems to have done at least a decent job of regency for her disabled husband, although she could not prevent the Senate from sinking Wilson’s crowning achievement, the League of Nations, twice. Astonishingly, she toyed with the idea of having her husband run for a third term in 1920, mainly because (it’s alleged) she feared that being out of power would kill him. It’s hard to imagine a Presidential candidate running for office half paralyzed and from a sick bed–and before you mention Franklin Roosevelt, I remind you that it’s undisputed that he still had all of his mental faculties. Wilson did survive at least a while beyond the end of his term, after he was replaced as President by Warren G. Harding. Wilson died in Washington in 1924.

Eighty-four years later Hillary Clinton famously said, as she conceded the 2008 Democratic Party nomination to Barack Obama, “We didn’t shatter the glass ceiling, but we put eighteen million cracks in it.” She may have been right, but she forgets that there are a few smudges on that ceiling that bear Edith Wilson’s fingerprints as well.