Sometime in the near future, U. S. citizens will elect their first
female president. Despite that official mandate, though, said woman
would not be the first female to govern and set policy for the
country. That honor goes to Edith Wilson, wife of Woodrow Wilson,
who held the job from 1913-1921.
In an amazing and long-rumored chapter in American history --- only
fully brought to light in documents released in 1991 --- the second
Mrs. Wilson acted as de facto Commander in Chief while her
husband floated in and out of a comatose state during the last year
and a half of his presidency. Unthinkable in today's mass media,
she shielded the extent of the President's illness and ability to
function both mentally and physically not only from the American
people, but government and White House staff.
Levin's exhaustive and impeccably researched book, nearly a decade
in the making, is not so much a portrait of the intellectual but
stubborn and elitist Wilson as it is of his tenacious and doggedly
protective Edith. After his well-liked first wife died in office,
the depressed President became obsessed with social-climbing widow
Edith Bolling Galt. He eventually proposed only two months after
meeting her --- then waited almost that long for an answer.
Wilson immediately took his wife into his confidence, alternately
soliciting and brashly receiving her opinion on everything from
Cabinet assignments to major policy speeches. Sensitive documents
that even the most highly placed senators would never lay eyes on
were game for the First Lady's dissection. Unfortunately, many of
her views were egregiously colored by personal prejudices and
pettiness, best exemplified in the case of Colonel Edward House.
Once Wilson's best friend, closest confidante, and brilliant
international negotiator, he was eventually shut out of his duties
--- and history --- by a woman who saw no room for competition for
her husband's attentions.
Most of EDITH AND WOODROW --- perhaps too much --- simply sets the
stage for the events of October 1919 to March 1921, again
impossible to imagine in a modern context. Wilson, on the ropes
politically due to his stubborn insistence that America enter the
post-World War One League of Nations on his unbendable terms,
suffered a paralyzing stroke. Rushed back to the White House, Edith
orchestrated an effort admirable in its sheer audacity: With the
compliance of two physicians, she essentially cut off contact
between Wilson and the entire world with locked doors, drawn
curtains, and bland, generic press bulletins.
With Woodrow vacillating being an alert weakness and a
vegetable-like state, Edith controlled all incoming visitors, mail,
and official documents. And even then only choosing which ones to
bring to her husband's attention and which to answer on her own.
Her numerous directives --- always hastily handwritten and
beginning with the phrase "The President says..." --- became
inescapable as the former brilliant orator and political leader
slowly disintegrated into a shuffling, slack-jawed, bar