The Invisible President
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Woodrow Wilson had undertaken a great railroad tour of the United States to convince the nation that the Treaty of Versailles should be ratified by the Senate. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and other like-minded Republicans opposed the presidentís plans for a variety of reasons, rooted in legitimate concerns about open-ended commitments to an international organization and less worthy issues of personal animosity toward Wilson.
The presidentís tour began shakily in early September 1919, as he visited the Midwest, where various ethnic groups harbored doubts about Wilsonís vision of the postwar world. Wilsonís message and the crowdsí reception became more positive in the West several weeks later, but the tour ended abruptly when the president was stricken in Colorado. He returned immediately to Washington, rested for a few days, then insisted on resuming his regular work schedule.
On October 2, Wilson was stricken again, this time apparently by cerebral thrombosis ó a blocking of blood flow to the brain due to a clot in a cerebral artery. For the next six weeks, Wilson lay in a White House bedroom in virtual seclusion, attended only by his doctors and his wife.
Wilsonís first wife had died in August 1914. Shortly after that he met and became interested in Edith Bolling Galt; they were married in late December 1915. During the courtship, a number of the presidentís closest advisors opposed the presidentís remarriage, arguing that there might be an adverse public reaction.
The new Mrs. Wilson never forgave those advisors and acted to reduce their contact with the president during his period of seclusion. She was the sole arbiter of what information and papers were taken to him, and stoutly resisted the suggestion of Colonel House that her husband resign. Some people suspected that the presidentís wife was making decisions for him.
Cabinet members and other advisors were unhappy about their lack of access to Wilson and finally managed to arrange a meeting in the presidentís chamber. They found him mentally alert, but his speech was badly slurred and he showed signs of paralysis in his left side. Wilson was not able to attend a regular cabinet meeting for more than six months.
Wilsonís illness and his inability to interact with political staff and leaders probably doomed the treaty, which had already been endangered by the failure of both sides to compromise.
The issue of the presidentís incapacity was not adequately addressed in the U.S. Constitution, which left the country vulnerable to a leadership vacuum. Edith Wilson, however, later denied that she made any important decisions during her husbandís confinement.
It was not until 1967, that the 25th Amendment was ratified, which offered procedures to be followed in the event of presidential illness or incapacity.
See also Wilson's Search for Peace.
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