A president’s health secret

Americans have been in the dark before

The first week of October 1919, almost exactly 101 years ago, saw the start of a 17-month stint with an incapacitated president and a consequent shadow government running the nation.

President Woodrow Wilson was well into his seventh year in office, having led the country through World War I and the world through the Treaty of Versailles that set the terms for peace following the brutal conflict. The treaty gave birth to the League of Nations, Wilson’s dream of a formal international organization designed to prevent future widespread wars.

Wilson, a Democrat, president of Princeton University, was tall, lean and scholarly when in 1912 he won the presidency over incumbent Republican William Howard Taft and former Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, who had formed the so-called Bull Moose Party after the GOP denied him a comeback as its presidential nominee that year.

But Wilson’s frail health belied his outward hale appearance. 

He had suffered strokes in 1896 and 1906. He recovered somewhat from each, but they left him with chronic headaches and high blood pressure, and close associates noticed changes to his personality that included a narrower and more insistent attitude on important issues.

Wilson was nearly 63 by late 1919. 

His coveted Treaty of Versailles, providing for the League of Nations, faced stiff opposition in the U.S. Senate from most Republicans and some Democrats. Ratification required a two-thirds vote, and the outlook for approval was shaky.

So Wilson, a workaholic despite his personal fragility, determined to take the matter to the people directly. On Sept. 3 he embarked on a scheduled four-week tour of the western U.S. with speeches scheduled in 29 cities, averaging one a day. 

Electronic amplification of public speeches in those days was often doubtful, and sometimes orators had to shout continually to make themselves heard.

Three weeks into the tour, on Sept. 25, Wilson was addressing a crowd in Pueblo, Colorado, when his speech started faltering and he had trouble with his train of thought. His beloved wife Edith and his personal physician, Dr. Cary Grayson, were alarmed and persuaded him to cancel the rest of the tour and get back to Washington.

A week later, on Oct. 2, Wilson tumbled to the floor of his White House bathroom, striking his head on the bathtub. Edith found him sprawled on the bathroom floor. He had sustained a major stroke from a blocked cerebral artery.

The blood clot paralyzed his left side, blinded his left eye and diminished his right, restricted his speech, and muddled his thinking process. He was confined to bed.

What followed was a long-lasting cover-up, probably the greatest in the history of the American presidency.

Wilson’s wife Edith, personal physician Dr. Grayson, and his personal secretary Joe Tumulty (the equivalent of today’s presidential chief of staff) together kept the president’s true condition secret from the American people for the rest of his term.

Edith Wilson became something like a shadow president. 

For the next 17 months, she decided what documents were important enough for him to see, and she and Tumulty stoutly guarded the entrance to the White House living quarters. Edith sent instructions and orders to the cabinet, and it was not known whether they were from her or the president.

The newspapers reported that Wilson had “taken ill,” and he was incommunicado. So four days after the stroke, after Tumulty had strongly denied to Secretary of State Robert Lansing that the president was incapacitated, Lansing called a meeting of the cabinet. He wanted to discuss what to do if the president was truly disabled.

(It would be nearly 50 years before adoption of the 25th Amendment that sets forth the procedures in the event of a president’s disability.)

The cabinet meeting ended with no decision.

Lansing summoned Dr. Grayson for some straight talk about Wilson’s condition. And Grayson lied: Wilson’s mind was “not only clear but very active.” All the president had was a touch of indigestion and “a depleted nervous system.”

Lansing and the other cabinet members had no evidence with which to dispute Grayson. Wilson’s true condition remained unknown to the government and the American people.

On Oct. 30, Belgium’s king and queen were traveling in America, and their visit to the White House couldn’t be avoided. Edith Wilson and Dr. Grayson propped up Wilson in bed, where he received the Belgian royalty with curtains drawn and lights dimmed. 

A blanket covered his paralyzed left arm, and the king and queen were seated to his right where his limited vision could see them. For 15 minutes he was able to carry on a conversation, and the press was able to report the meeting in positive terms.

Over the next several weeks government officials and the American public grew suspicious. 

After a while, Wilson was able to meet with key government officeholders for a short time, belying the rumors that he was in a vegetative condition. His first post-stroke cabinet meeting in person took place in April 1920, and those present were shocked at his appearance. He was reported to have difficulty keeping his mind on the discussion.

Wilson did not deliver a State of the Union address in person in either December 1919 or December 1920. Unwillingness to compromise an inch on the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, he saw the treaty go down to defeat in the Senate, and the U.S. therefore did not join the League of Nations.

But the whole truth remained hidden throughout the rest of Wilson’s term. 

He left office in early 1921 and died three years later at the age of 67.

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