Friday, October 2, 2015

A Heartbeat Away: Thomas Marshall and Woodrow Wilson's Illness

J. Fred Essary, the Washington correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, found himself confronted with a delicate assignment in the fall of 1919. Stricken by a massive stroke, President Woodrow Wilson lay deathly ill in the White House. Concerned about the president’s medical condition, doctors and those close to Wilson decided that someone outside of government should inform the vice president about Wilson’s sickness. Quietly making his way to the vice president’s office, Essary told him that the president might die at any moment. The stunned vice president sat at his desk, his head down, staring at his hands. The reporter waited a long time for a reply, received none, and left, noticing that the vice president never once looked up.

Years after the meeting, Essary, on a visit to Indiana, saw the vice president, Thomas R. Marshall, who apologized for the incident. “I did not even have the courtesy to thank you for coming over and telling me. It was the first great shock of my life," Marshall said.

The clandestine meeting between Marshall and the reporter was one of many bizarre incidents transpiring as a result of Wilson’s stroke. Although he stood just a heartbeat away from the presidency, Marshall, the former Indiana governor best known for his quip about cigar prices and the state of the country, never had the opportunity to see for himself just how incapacitated Wilson had become. Although Marshall tried to visit the president, Wilson’s wife, Edith Bolling Wilson, blocked all access to the stricken president. As the administration floundered, Marshall faced a difficult choice. Should he do nothing and chance that the national government would grind to a halt, or should he take firmer measures and chance being branded a usurper?

Marshall, the witty, down-to-earth Hoosier politician, and Wilson, the professorial minister’s son, never enjoyed a close relationship. The two men were thrown together not by any shared philosophy, but by political expediency. Forced to take Marshall on as his running mate to win enough delegates to achieve the Democratic presidential nomination in 1912, Wilson showed his low regard for the former Hoosier governor by calling him “a very small calibre man.” With the split in the Republican Party between incumbent President William Howard Taft and the third-party Bull Moose effort of former President Theodore Roosevelt, the Wilson/Marshall team narrowly captured the election. Upon assuming his limited duties as vice president, chiefly serving as the presiding officer for the U.S. Senate, Marshall discovered that Wilson’s dim view of his running mate carried over from the convention to the new administration. “I soon ascertained,” Marshall wrote in his autobiography, “that I was of no importance to the administration beyond the duty of being loyal to it and ready, at any time, to act as a sort of pinch hitter; that is, when everybody else on the team had failed, I was to be given a chance.”

Marshall attempted to ease his troubles by unleashing his well-known sense of humor. When taking up his duties as the Senate’s presiding officer, for example, he asked for a new chair, since his feet failed to touch the floor when he sat in the old one (the vice president was not a tall man). He even went as far as to attribute his presence in office to an “ignorant electorate.”

The Hoosier vice president was held in such little regard by those inside the Wilson administration that there was even a movement afoot at the 1916 Democratic convention in St. Louis to dump Marshall from the ticket, perhaps replacing him with Secretary of Agriculture David Houston or Secretary of War Newton D. Baker. Wilson, however, came to Marshall’s defense, noting the vice president “has given me every reason to admire and trust him.” With the president’s support, Marshall hung on to his job, and won a second term in a close race against the Republican ticket of Charles Evans Hughes and Charles W. Fairbanks (also from Indiana).

Marshall’s early difficulties in office were nothing compared to the trials he faced following the war's end. WhenWilson decided to leave the country and join the negotiations for the Treaty of Versailles in Paris (a decision he did not share with his vice president), he called upon Marshall to preside over cabinet meetings during his absence—becoming the first vice president ever to have such an honor. Although he attended only a few meetings, Marshall did manage to inject some levity into the usually staid surroundings. Once when Secretary of Commerce William C. Redfield read a letter to other cabinet members from a man complaining about bristle supplies, Marshall interrupted the secretary to offer an answer: “Tell him to shave and get his own raw material.”

A sterner test for Marshall was yet to come. Faced with opposition by Republican senators in his support for the League of Nations, Wilson embarked on a speaking tour in the late summer of 1919 hoping to rally public opinion to his cause. Before he could finish the tour, however, Wilson, whose health had never been good, collapsed, telling his personal physician Rear Admiral Cary T. Grayson that he seemed “to have gone to pieces.” Grayson informed the press that the president had “suffered a complete nervous breakdown” and it was necessary for Wilson to return as soon as possible to the White House. The president agreed to cancel the rest of the tour and he and his party returned to Washington, D.C.

On October 2, 1919, Wilson suffered a massive stroke that paralyzed his left side and left him an invalid both physically and mentally. Dr. Grayson, who had been called to the White House upon Mrs. Wilson’s orders, issued a terse statement to the press that the president “had a fairly good night, but his condition is not at all good this morning.” A second bulletin informed the nation: “The President is a very sick man. His condition is less favorable today and he has remained in bed throughout the day. After consultation with Dr. F. X. Dercum of Philadelphia, Drs. Sterling Ruffin and E. R. Stitt of Washington, in which all agreed as to his condition, it was determined that absolute rest is essential for some time.”

Taking the doctor’s advice, Mrs. Wilson began what she termed her stewardship, studying every paper sent to the president and trying “to digest and present in tabloid form the things that, despite my vigilance, had to go to the President.” Although she claimed that she never made a decision on how a question or issue should be decided, Mrs. Wilson did, as she admitted, have the critical task of deciding “what was important and what was not, and the very important decision of when to present matters to my husband.” Despite her best efforts, the wheels of government soon ground to a halt. Mrs. Wilson steadfastly refused to allow policy questions to upset her husband’s recovery.

As time went on and Wilson struggled to regain his health, Marshall became deluged with advice from all sides. Foreign governments began sending him official papers, prisoners in federal facilities sent pardon requests to him, and job hunters besieged his office. Some Republican senators even hinted that Marshall would have their support if he decided to assume the presidency. Troubled and needing more information about Wilson’s true condition, Marshall went to the White House in an attempt to see the president. He never had a chance; Mrs. Wilson still zealously guarded her husband from any unwanted callers. Marshall did not see the president again until the inaugurations of Wilson’s successor, Republican Warren Harding.

Mark Thistlethwaite, Marshall’s private secretary attempted to convince the vice president that he had to consider the distinct possibility that he would be called upon to take over for Wilson—a situation Marshall was reluctant to talk about. Pressing his boss about the matter, Thistlethwaite asked Marshall if he might assume the presidency if Congress decided Wilson was unable to continue? “No,” Marshall said. “It would not be legal until the President signed it, or until it had a two-thirds vote, and a two-thirds vote is impossible.” Marshall, according to Thomas, decided that the only way he would take over for Wilson was if Congress passed a resolution to that effect and Mrs. Wilson and Dr. Grayson approved it in writing. “I am not going to seize the place and then have Wilson—recovered—come around and say ‘get off, you usurper,’” Marshall told Thistlethwaite. Marshall later confided to his wife: “I could throw this country into civil war, but I won’t.”

Marshall never had the opportunity to find out how he would have reacted as president. Despite his infirmities, Wilson continued in office. Unwilling to accept any compromises with his beloved League of Nations, the president saw his dreams crushed as the Senate could not muster a majority either for the treaty with or without amendments. Wilson hoped he might be nominated for a third term, but Democrats instead turned to James M. Cox, governor of Ohio, as their party’s presidential nominee. Cox went down to defeat in the 1920 election against Republican candidate Harding and his running mate, Calvin Coolidge. For his part, Marshall was only too glad to become a private citizen again. He telegraphed his eventual successor, Coolidge, after the Massachusetts governor received the GOP vice presidential nomination, “Please accept my sincere sympathy.”

Marshall’s dilemma as vice president on whether or not he should take over for Wilson spurred some discussion on the question of presidential succession, but a constitutional answer did not come until 1967 with the ratification of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Under the amendment, sponsored by U.S. Senator Birch Bayh, an Indiana Democrat, if a president could not fulfill his office’s duties, he could certify his disability and have the vice president take over. In a situation where the president could not or would not ask his second in command to take over, the amendment provides that the vice president could take over with the Cabinet’s consent.

But even with the procedures outlined in the Twenty-Fifth amendment, confusion still reigns when disaster strikes. On March 30, 1981, John Hinckley tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. As the injured Reagan underwent surgery, and Vice President George Bush hurried back to Washington from a speech in Texas, the question remained: who was in charge? Attempting to calm the country, Secretary of State Alexander Haig made his infamous “I am in control here” remark, which only proved, as Marshall could have told them, that in times of national crisis the only certainty is uncertainty.

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