The Other 28th President: Edith Bolling Wilson Part 2

About the other 28th President, Edith Bolling Wilson, who took charge during her husband Woodrow's illness.

The Other 28th President


A unique configuration of circumstances led Edith Wilson to become "Acting President," as some called her. She was strongly influenced by Dr. F. X. Dercum, who implored her to take over, stressing that her husband's life depended upon her. He explained that the President had a blood clot in his brain. The clot would dissolve and he would probably recover-if he was spared the chore of making decisions and he was shielded from all disturbing problems. Resignation was no answer, Dr. Dercum warned. His will to live would be gone, and the ratification of the peace treaty would be endangered, along with the League of Nations, the cause that meant the most to him. Dr. Grayson, Wilson's personal physician and friend, concurred in this opinion. Both doctors agreed that the elevation of Vice-President Thomas Riley Marshall to head of state would be calamitous. Marshall, the logical stand-in for Wilson by virtue of official rank, was a happy-go-lucky chap whose affability and entertaining speeches endeared him to everyone. It was he who coined the phrase, "What this country needs is a good 5 cent cigar." However, at the prospect of assuming the Presidency, he simply dissolved. On one occasion, when he was reminded that he might have to take over Woodrow Wilson's job, he buried his head in his hands and could not speak. Another time, when he was asked what he would do if he became President, he blurted out, "I can't even think about it."

Secretary of State Robert Lansing was not much better suited temperamentally to fill the role of chief of state. Nor did he know as much about foreign policy as Edith Wilson, who had been Wilson's confidante. In fact, all Lansing knew about Wilson's policies was what he read in the newspapers. For that matter, Marshall knew little more. Marshall sidestepped Cabinet meetings, quipping that if he couldn't have the $75,000 a year that went along with the President's job, he wasn't going to do any of his work.

Lone wolf Wilson had one alter ego on whom he relied--his wife, Edith. He told her everything, and she helped him make all his decisions. When he weighed the alternatives to acceptance of William Jennings Bryan's letter of resignation, Edith tipped the scales, urging him to replace Bryan. Bryan, who was Secretary of State before Lansing, was a dedicated pacifist. His opposition to preparedness for war Edith considered dangerous. Wilson deferred to Edith's opinion.

Edith had sat in on all of Wilson's private conferences. She was the only person who knew the secret code by which he communicated with Colonel House and his emissaries in Europe. Wilson had taught her the code in February of 1915, and from then on he wrote his top-secret communications in longhand for Edith to encode in her own writing. Edith also decoded incoming messages during those 4 1/2 years. Not another soul knew the mind of Wilson and the nuances of his foreign policy the way that Edith Bolling Wilson did. Thus she was eminently suited to the awesome cares thrust upon her by destiny.

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