- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 21, 2001

By Phyllis Lee Levin
Scribner, $35, 606 pages, illus.

Woodrow Wilson was Richard M. Nixon's favorite president. So much so that when he became president he asked the General Services Administration to find for his use in the oval office the desk that Wilson had used. But if, as Nixon thought, Woodrow Wilson was a great man, his greatness has escaped historian Phyllis Lee Levin. In fact, though she doesn't say so in so many words, in "Edith and Woodrow," she leaves the impression that in the great matters of war and peace Wilson was an arrogant bumbler.
And, after Wilson was stricken with a major stroke in 1919 much the same could be said for his wife, Edith Galt Wilson, who seized and exercised the power of the presidency for the remainder of Wilson's term. In fact, the author deals with Edith in much harsher terms than she deals with her husband, concluding that Edith "willfully betrayed the public interest" and "emerges as a dissembling and unworthy figure in the history of the American presidency." She was, however, a handsome, perhaps even a beautiful woman.
Using material and information that has not previously been available, the author reaches conclusions about each of the Wilsons that tickle the reader's fancy. Wilson, she decides, was a "narcissistic, ambitious, sensual, dependent, emotionally vulnerable and physically impaired man," which seems more like the stuff of Greek tragedies that it does as a description of an American president. Edith, she finds, had a "formidable talent for fiction," which is a fancy way of saying she was an accomplished liar. Her victims, the author reveals, "included her husband's closest and trusted adviser Col. Edward Mandell House, Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, Secretary of State Robert Lansing, and a renowned British ambassador, and of course, the president himself."
Wilson, like so many men who have reached high office, was a prolific and detailed letter writer, in his case especially to the women in his life. Through his letters to them, letters from Edith to him, and other material, the author paints the love story of Woodrow and Edith that ended only with his death.
There is, however, a troubling aspect to this book. The author is so wrapped up in the relationship between Woodrow and Edith and the relatively few persons immediately involved in their lives that she leaves out or barely touches on the major issues of Wilson's presidency with the exception of the two items that dominated Wilson's thoughts and ambitions in the last years of his presidency the League of Nations and the peace treaty with Germany. It is not until the last page that we learn that one of Wilson's "achievements" was the introduction of the income tax. Undoubtedly she does this deliberately, but unless the reader is familiar with the times and the broad scope of Wilson's administration he will be left wondering how the Wilsons dealt with labor unrest, serious problems with Mexico, race riots and unemployment as well as with the war in Europe and its aftermath.
Woodrow's romance with Edith Bolling Galt began as love, or as some observers said obsession at first sight. The couple met in March of 1915, seven months after the death of Ellen Wilson on Aug. 6, 1914, became engaged seven months later and were married just before Christmas of 1915. From then on it was the kind of co-presidency future candidates for president could only talk about.
Lurking in the background of the story of Edith and Woodrow are a number of the major players of the time, both Americans and Europeans, including Col. House (until he was elbowed aside by Edith.) But in the book they only appear on the scene as they relate to the Wilsons. One man who wasn't pushed aside was Wilson's doctor, Cary Travers Grayson, who attended the president from shortly after his inauguration until his death and who connived with Edith to keep hidden from the world the seriousness of her husband's physical condition. Like Edith he seemed to have no idea that what they were doing was performing a serious disservice to their country.
Edith Wilson appears to have been a lady of few personal likes and strong dislikes, a characteristic which ill fitted her to take over and run almost singlehandedly and badly the government of the United states after her husband's stroke. She was, the author asserts, "a woman of narrow views and formidable determination." It was because of that latter trait that she came to be referred to as the nation's first woman president. (Hillary Clinton eat your heart out). In fact, she was more nearly the nation's first dictator of either sex. The White House staff was tiny, to the point that Wilson not only wrote many of his own speeches but also typed them. It is almost as if Wilson had no close advisers beyond Edith and Col. House and that the trio ran the affairs of the nation as a three-man band until Edith destroyed his relationship with House. After that it was just Woodrow and Edith.
What is hard to comprehend by today's standards is that after Wilson's stroke the congress was either indifferent in large measure to Edith Wilson's role or didn't understand what it was or, if it did, its leaders felt powerless to do anything about it. The same was true with the vice president, Thomas R. Marshall, and members of the cabinet all of whom were prevented from seeing the president by his wife. And while some publications carried editorials that were critical of the situation there seems to have been little effort by reporters on the scene to discover exactly what it was. Indeed, the author says, the only reporters allowed access to Wilson after his stroke were those who "could be counted on to write agreed untruths."
Though Wilson's stroke may have been the deciding factor that kept the United States out of the League of Nations, his speeches prior to that time indicate that he persisted in living in the sort of dream world that prevented him from reaching the kind of compromises with America's allies or with his opponents in the Senate that would have made U.S. entry into the League possible. In one speech in England he talked of "a great tide running in the hearts of men" and asserted that "men have never been so conscious of their brotherhood," hardly the kind of attitude than would reassure the hard-bitten leaders of his European allies. Such speeches, the author writes, left France's premier Georges Clemenceau, for one, worrying about how simplistic and impractical Wilson was.
At the same time Wilson left the impression with other Europeans that as one put it, "he does not seem to have the slightest conception that he can ever be wrong." This, in turn, led to a comment by Arthur Willert, a London Times correspondent: "What a mess that man in his megalomania has made of things." The mess, largely due to Wilson's obstinacy and refusal to compromise, in the end led directly to the senate Republicans, under the leadership of Henry Cabot Lodge, blocking America's entrance into the League of Nations.
The story of Edith and Woodrow might logically have ended on the date of that vote, March 19, 1920. The reason it didn't is because Wilson, still crippled and weak from his stroke and suffering from other afflictions, was determined to run for a third term in the hopes of eventually getting the treaty ratified. While Edith, blind to the realities of the situation, encouraged him his party ignored him and his name was never placed in nomination at the Democratic National Convention that summer.
But even then Wilson's dream did not die. Still believing the world needed him and that his party could not do without him he was, a mere 14 days before his death in February of 1924, working on his proposed acceptance speech in the belief that he would be that year's democratic candidate for president. It is a story that Cecil B. DeMille could have made into a really great movie. And it is a story that Phyllis Lee Levin tells well.

Lyn Nofziger, a Washington writer, was a political advisor to President Ronald Reagan.

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