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A Crippled Presidency

2 Sep 2014

President Woodrow Wilson

Wilson's Vice President, Thomas Marshall

Wilson's Secretary of State, Robert Lansing

Wilson's Attorney General, Mitchell Palmer
Who runs the government when the president is incapacitated? The easy answer is the vice president, as Acting President under the 25th Amendment, but suppose there is debate over whether he (or she) is truly incapacitated. Suppose, like Ronald Reagan in his second term, his cognitive impairment is border line, "manageable". Suppose the Cabinet is split down the middle over the issue. What happens? Basically, nothing. But what happens when the President's confidantes starts scheming to take advantage of the situation?

That actually happened once at a critical time for America in world history. The most important paper I wrote as a college undergraduate concerned the stroke that incapacitated Woodrow Wilson (Ronald Wilson Reagan's namesake) for the last 18 months of his term (1913 to 1921). I walked away from that paper with more questions than answers. Why did Wilson not resign? Why did his vice president, Thomas Marshall, not step up to the plate? How did Wilson fool the U.S. Senate and American people into thinking he was fit for duty?

First, a quick historical recap: After the United States' entry into World War I, we made quick work of a European war that had been in stalemate for years. The war turned America into a world power and Wilson into a world leader. Wilson dominated the proceedings at the Paris peace talks. He forced all the world leaders, Winston Churchill among them, to accept the creation of a League of Nations to negotiate great power disagreements. They didn't want it, but they were afraid to make him mad because he controlled so many purse strings, and the international food bank organized for him by Herbert Hoover.

League support in America was equally mixed. Senate Republican leader Henry Cabot Lodge (father of the man Jack Kennedy beat in 1952) opposed the League, so Wilson went on the road. He organized a 10,000 mile train tour through the Midwest and West to rally the American people behind it. Off the back of the train he gave as many as a dozen speeches a day, all of which he wrote himself. Halfway into the trip Wilson suffered a stroke that forced them back to the White House, where he had another stroke, this one far worse. The left half of his body, including his face, was paralyzed. Though his mind remained basically intact, his legendary memory was destroyed, his spirit depleted, and his body teetered near death. His speech was like that of so many stroke victims, inadequate to the task of expressing what his mind continued to think.

In spite of all this Wilson gradually improved, somewhat. He continued in office for the eighteen months remaining in his second term, but a pale ghost of his old self. There was no White House staff to speak of back then, so his wife with only an eighth-grade education, Edith Bolling Wilson, served as secretary, gatekeeper, and policymaker for him. To her credit, she did ask the question of Woodrow's physician: shouldn't her husband resign and let the vice president take over? The physician vigorously disagreed and said that if he left office it would destroy Woodrow's spirit and hopes for a recoverly. So Edith decided to protect her husband as best she knew how. She decided who could see him, and what he was allowed to learn.

There were numerous officials who could have and should have acted, but Thomas Marshall was terrified of becoming president; notorious pundit Alice Roosevelt Longworth claimed he fainted upon hearing false reports of Wilson's death. Alice was unfair: Marshall merely went catatonic. Secretary of State Robert Lansing actively pursued a Wilson retirement, but Wilson held on with the support of Attorney General Mitchell Palmer, father of the Red Scare and anarchist raids led by young J. Edgar Hoover. Palmer hoped to use Wilson to further his own fantasies of being elected president in 1920, but came in a poor third at the Democratic National Convention.

The opportunities for political mayhem of the worst sort are obvious in such a situation. Two recent TV shows - Boss and 24 - address the possible problems. In Boss, only the boss (Kelsey Grammar as mayor of Chicago) knows about the problem, and he ain't tellin', but he knows his condition is a ticking time bomb that he cannot control. He knows that when he finally loses control people might be hurt, but he holds on anyway. In 24 the President (played by William Devane) has revealed his Alzheimer's to one man, his chief of staff, who immediately starts second-guessing and undercutting his boss's decisions. Even a man with the best of intentions can become untrustworthy if the cognitively impaired boss continues to work as if nothing is wrong.

In my upcoming novel White House Storm the president is a once-powerful man who stills feeds off his celebrity. As his mental faculties slide, some near him connive while others show concern. Suppose President Obama was diagnosed with a permanent cognitive disorder of this sort. How do you think he would handle it - sweep it under the rug, resign, tell the American people in a speech and stay anyways? Suppose his staff noticed before he did. How would they handle it - abuse their authority, or move to bring in the vice president? Let me know what you think by leaving your remarks at http://ow.ly/B0iLl.

I should also mention that a recent Wilson biography by A. Scott Berg provides remarkable new details about the build up to Wilson's stroke, and the aftermath, unrevealed until now. Berg had access to new documents, and it shows. He provides a lot of specific information about the incidents in Paris and on the train that preceded the stroke, and also the extent to which Edith Wilson and Robert Lansing went to actually end Wilson's presidency in favor of the vice president. No matter how much you may think you know about Wilson's life and in particular his last two years in office, there will remain huge gaps in your knowledge until you read Berg's biography of America's first southern president after the Civil War.

You may also like this related article: A Mad Catastrophe (202)
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