Wednesday, July 20, 2005

"The Secret President"

[[H I S T O R Y]] *For once, George W. Bush’s request for prime-time TV attention actually produced something newsworthy. Last night’s announcement that he would nominate John G. Roberts Jr., a conservative 50-year-old judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, to replace retiring U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is already stirring up fervent debate, and not just because the broadcast was so transparently calculated to turn the media’s spotlight away from the continuing Rove-Plame scandal.

However, I’ll leave the analysis of Roberts’ potential impact on the Court’s future to others. My own interest lies in the bewildering fact that Bush, who had the opportunity to replace O’Connor with its third woman in history, or even with someone like Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, whose appointment would surely have enhanced Republican efforts to woo Latino voters away from the Democratic camp, chose instead, well, yet another white guy. This, after the media spent almost all of Tuesday in wheels-spinning speculation over whether the nominee would be one of two Ediths presently sitting on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit: Edith Clement of New Orleans or Edith Jones of Texas. Had either of those jurists been tapped, it would have bolstered a suggestion made earlier by Bruce Reed, in his Slate column, that “[Karl] Rove is on his way out, and has already been replaced as chief political strategist by Laura Bush.” After all, it was the first lady who, while on a good-will tour of Africa, told NBC’s Today show that she wanted to see another female justice.

As I checked Web news sources throughout the day, to see which way the Supreme Court odds-makers were leaning, all the discussion about those other two Ediths put me in mind of a third and very different woman with the same name--a first lady, like Laura Bush, but one whose role in presidential decision-making might have been much more significant. I refer, of course, to Edith Bolling Galt, whom President Woodrow Wilson married, following the unexpected death of his first wife, the former Ellen Axson, on August 6, 1914.

Edith Galt, who’d been widowed by the death of her first husband, the owner of a posh Washington, D.C., jewelry store, was hardly the stereotypical demure, background-dwelling presidential spouse. As historian H.W. Brands writes in his 2003 biography, Woodrow Wilson,
In the seven years since [her first husband’s] death, she had acquired control of the [jewelry] business, which provided her a comfortable, independent living and entrée to the most exclusive salons of the capital city. She lived in a house near Dupont Circle, from which she ventured forth by foot and automobile. Driving her own car, she prided herself on being the first Washington woman to indulge such daring.
The 28th president, seriously depressed as a result of Ellen’s passing (“Oh my God, what am I to do?” Wilson had cried out beside her deathbed), and having simultaneously to deal with the eruption of World War I in Europe, welcomed the distraction that Edith represented. He was also impressed by Mrs. Galt’s interest in political and diplomatic affairs. Even before they wed, in December 1915, he would send her copies of government correspondence, and ask for her advice. But Edith’s emergence as Wilson’s newest and most intimate consultant caused concern among the president’s other associates, who saw their own influence threatened. As it turned out, they were right about her sway over Wilson, but wrong to question her intent and devotion to the president’s legacy.

On June 28, 1919, Germany signed what would come to be known as the Treaty of Versailles, ending World War I and establishing the League of Nations, an international organization (the precursor to the United Nations) that its architect, Wilson, believed was the linchpin to maintaining global harmony and preventing future wars. However, U.S. Senate cooperation in these matters was in doubt. The Democratic minority seconded Wilson’s support of both the peace treaty and the League, but Republicans (led by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts) balked at U.S. obligations, under League membership, to uphold peace and security, provoking a frustrated Wilson to take his case directly to the people. In September 1919, he embarked on a cross-country campaign to win public backing for his foreign policies. “Had he held office a decade hence,” writes Brands, “he could have addressed the nation by radio; four decades hence, by television. But in 1919 the only way he could let America hear his voice was to visit America personally.”

Traveling about 10,000 miles through the Midwest and West, Wilson delivered some 40 speeches in 30 towns, insisting along the way that “80 percent of the people of the United States are for the League of Nations.” This was a remarkable example of presidential salesmanship, but it came to a sudden halt in Pueblo, Colorado, in late September, when the president stumbled while approaching his speaker’s platform. He’d apparently suffered a stroke, resulting from the stresses of his wartime leadership and his subsequent national tour. The rest of the trip was canceled, and Wilson was rushed by train back to D.C., where he suffered a more massive, paralyzing stroke on October 2.

This is the point at which Edith Wilson demonstrated her mettle, if also some capacity for deviousness. During the lengthy convalescence that followed Wilson’s stroke, he was basically hidden away in the White House, free from public as well as official view. With the complicity of Wilson’s physician, Dr. Cary T. Grayson, Edith imposed what she would later call a “stewardship” of the presidency. For 17 months, she withheld the full extent of Wilson’s disability from the press and voters, serving as “the soul conduit” between her husband and the world. In her 1939 memoir, she would explain her remarkable role:
I studied every paper, sent from the different Secretaries or Senators, and tried to digest and present in tabloid form the things that, despite my vigilance, had to go to the President. I, myself, never made a single decision regarding the disposition of public affairs. The only decision that was mine was what was important and what was not, and the very important decision of when to present matters to my husband.
With Wilson sequestered in his room, unable to provide the public advocacy and behind-the-scenes arm-twisting that might have won passage of the Versailles treaty, the Republican-controlled Senate refused to ratify it, which also spelled the end of American participation in the League of Nations. Those twin failures torpedoed Wilson’s popularity and helped sink, at least in the short term, the White House hopes of his fellow Democrats. In 1920, Republican Warren G. Harding was elected to the Oval Office. And just over three years later, Wilson--who, since leaving the White House, had been living in semi-seclusion in a home on Washington’s S Street--finally died, his last word: “Edith.” The former Edith Bolling Galt, didn’t follow her husband to the grave until 1961, 11 months after she’d had the honor to ride in President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural parade. In the 84 years since her time as first lady ended, she has been alternately denounced and applauded as the “first woman to run the government” and “the secret president.”

To adapt a famous line from Lloyd Bentsen, Laura Bush is no Edith Wilson. (For that matter, she’s no Eleanor Roosevelt or Hillary Clinton either, both of whom had a more storied impact on their husbands’ agendas than the present first lady can claim.) Her support for the idea of placing another woman on the nation’s highest bench evidently fell on deaf ears, as Dubya kowtowed to the demands of religious-rightists, who--upset by recent Supreme Court decisions regarding property rights and the fate of Terry Schiavo--wanted a rock-solidly conservative judicial pick. It will be interesting to see whether Mrs. Bush retreats now into her previous role as librarian in chief, or discovers her voice again in future presidential policy matters. Doesn’t she realize what power she possesses? Even Dick Cheney can do little more than give his boss the cold shoulder when he disagrees with him; an upset first lady can send her hubby to sleep on the couch for the duration of his term. Who would you rather piss off?

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