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Philosopher-King Lear?
Louis Auchincloss's
Woodrow Wilson

by Woody Arbunkle

For all the tragic potential, it's the revealing glimpses biographer Louis Auchincloss gives us of a Woodrow Wilson at odds with the popularly conceived, remote, coldly rational figure that might move, even surprise, many readers.

Louis Auchincloss opens Woodrow Wilson, his brief entry in the Penguin Lives series, with an occurrence that precipitated the single most cataclysmic event of Woodrow Wilson's presidency: in late September 1919, Wilson had to cut short a speechmaking tour (intended to gain support for the Versailles Treaty) after suffering a transient ischemic attack. Days later, on October 2, he suffered a major stroke that left him paralyzed on the left side and rendered him, Auchincloss writes, "essentially incompetent." As one White House staff member wrote in his diary, "The president lay stretched out on the large Lincoln bed. He looked as if dead. There was not a sign of life. His face bore a long cut above the temple from which the signs of blood were still evident....He was just gone as far as anyone could judge from appearances."

Woodrow Wilson
Louis Auchincloss
Lipper / Viking
128 pp.
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Nonetheless, the White House and Congress pushed on, as if nothing had happened. Congressional bills were passed without presidential signature, the White House cabinet met (and, for lack of presidential direction, discussed trivialities), and--most tellingly--Edith Wilson, the president's second wife, took on an oracular role as the president's sole intermediary. As Auchincloss writes, "Edith Wilson would sometimes meet with the cabinet and take papers with questions to the president, always behind closed doors, returning with a 'He says yes' or a 'He says no.' Had she read them to him? Or had she made up the answers? Nobody knew." She later said that she was acting under a doctor's advice that she protect her husband from a potentially fatal contact with anxiety-provoking matters, but for a time, the country passed through a dark, uncertain period that Auchincloss terms "a strange hiatus in American government."

In time, Wilson recovered at least partially, but as Auchincloss documents, "The Wilson who at last recovered some of his health was a pale simulacrum of the man he had been. He was querulous, petulant, and unable to take care of business with anything like the wonderful efficiency that had characterized his former activities." It wasn't without its queer effects:


If he was taken for a drive, he not only insisted that his chauffeur not exceed a speed of twenty miles an hour, but sent the Secret Service men to arrest any driver who passed them. Of course, these men would pretend to make a chase and then return to say that the culprit had got away.


On a decidedly more significant level, Auchincloss suggests, the October 2 stroke and Edith Wilson's protective reaction to it may have been directly responsible for Wilson's failure to convince Americans to back the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations:


That second Woodrow Wilson of whom we have spoken, crippled with a stroke, may have acted in the treaty fight as the earlier and healthier one never would have. Is it possible that the blame for our failure to enter the league may be attributable more to Edith Wilson and Cary Grayson [the president's physician], who hid the condition of their husband and patient from the cabinet and Congress and persuaded him to retain an office for which he was unfit, than to the isolationism of Henry Cabot Lodge?


By focusing so closely on Wilson's physical and emotional frailties, Auchincloss does a splendid job of bringing Wilson the person to life, without slighting the biographical information to be expected in even the slimmest biographies. Thus, in a scant 125 pages, he takes us from Wilson's birth in Staunton, Virginia (Wilson was the first Southerner to be elected president since the Civil War, although Auchincloss discounts the notion that Wilson was a true Southerner), through his diverse education and the political machinations that led Wilson, improbably enough, from a bumpy stint as a university president to the White House, ending (quite appropriately) with Wilson's last word: "Edith."

Along the way, Auchincloss does a commendable job presenting the key figures in Wilson's political career, including those who anointed him a philosopher-king (Colonel George B.M. Harvey and James Smith) and the man who served him most faithfully, Colonel Edward M. House (as Auchincloss notes, "the title was honorary, bestowed by a grateful Texas governor"). House and Wilson


were physically almost opposites: Wilson was tall and impressive as a statesman and orator whereas House was short and frail, with a receding chin and a voice that lacked resonance. But something extraordinary at once clicked between them. "We have known each other always," Wilson wrote him. And later, in 1913, when House was firmly ensconced as a White House adviser (though he never, until the peace treaty negotiations in 1919, had any salary or title), Wilson made this remarkable statement to a politician:

Mr. House is my second personality. He is my independent self. If I were in his place I would do just as he suggested. If anyone thinks he is reflecting my opinion by whatever action he takes, they are welcome to the conclusion.


Unfortunately, House was eventually forced out of Wilson's inner circle by Edith (who may have been jealous of his close friendship with her husband), and he was not allowed to visit Wilson during the three years that the ex-president survived after leaving the White House.


In many ways, the arc of Wilson's life is classically tragic, and it certainly has literary resonances. The pitiable stories of the Secret Service being sent after casual drivers inevitably bring King Lear to mind, for example, and the oracular Edith is a wonderfully archetypal figure who seems ripe for Greek tragedy, if she's not already lurking there under another name...though even her most virulent critics would hesitate to brand her a Lady MacBeth--wouldn't they? After all, her flaw seems to have been mere overprotectiveness rather than powermongering. On the other hand, Wilson himself seemed to be dangerously treading the purple when he told the Democratic Party chairman in 1912 that "'Remember that God ordained that I should be the next president of the United States.'' It's not exactly Agamemnon (who suffered from excessive pride of his own, rather than the divine's, power), but in its religious certitude, it may seem to lack a becoming humility to less fervent ears.

But for all the tragic potential, it's the revealing glimpses Auchincloss gives us of a Wilson at odds with the popularly conceived, remote, coldly rational figure that might move, even surprise, many readers. Can you imagine Wilson, whom Henry Adams once described as "a mysterious, a rather Olympian personage and shrouded in darkness from which issue occasional thunderbolts," entertaining house guests with such comic impersonations as "the drunken man staggering about with a cowlike look in his eyes, the heavy Englishman with an insufferably superior accent and an invisible monocle, the villain done with a scowl and a dragging foot"?

As Auchincloss readily acknowledges, there are other larger, indispensable Wilson biographies, but his Woodrow Wilson holds its own as a compelling introduction to Wilson, and it's a superb installment in the continuing Penguin Lives series.




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