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A Symbol That Failed

In 1918, a hopeful France gave Mrs. Wilson a peace brooch, but peace eluded her husband and the world

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The treaty, based on his Fourteen Points, required a League of Nations, and the United States, he believed, must surely join the League to add to its peacekeeping credibility. But he found that the League, which sounded so sensible in war-torn Europe, rubbed a lot of Americans the wrong way, especially Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. Everyone wanted the treaty, all right, but ties with Europe made people leery about one day having to pull European chestnuts out of the fire--again.

The President's splendid oratory won him admiration and affection, as he toured the country, but did not produce the flood of pro-League telegrams to Washington that he sought. Political opponents claimed he had forgotten the workings of a democracy. He didn't ask for support, he demanded it in the name of national virtue. Even his French colleague, Georges Clemenceau, found himself bored with Wilson's Fourteen Points: "Why," he exclaimed, "God Almighty has only ten!" And H. L. Mencken, ever watching for an open shot at big game, declared that Wilson was waiting for "the first vacancy in the Trinity."

The President drove himself cruelly in a losing cause. In Kansas, he collapsed and was rushed home. He seemed to get a little better, then took a fall and suffered a stroke. Thereafter he was unable to handle the work of the Presidency, and the normal running of the country slowed to a crawl. With only two years of formal schooling but devoted to keeping tedious chores away from her husband, Edith Wilson checked every letter, every request for a decision, even every bill to sign. It was claimed she signed some of them for her husband, but most she shelved without an answer. Newly arrived ambassadors weren't received, candidates for empty Cabinet posts were left twisting in the wind. Vice President Thomas Marshall, famous mostly for remarking that "what this country needs is a really good five-cent cigar," slumped into a fit of depression when someone suggested that he might have to take over the reins. "Presidentess" Edith had firm hold of them.

Rumors flew that the President was mad--and indeed the meager communications from the White House often made little sense. Letters to the President from members of the Cabinet would be answered in "a large, school-girlish handwriting" that meandered all over the page. Mistrust of the highest office--almost unheard of in those innocent days--appeared and grew, and anger focused on the only people who had access to the President: his doctor, Cary Grayson, his long-trusted secretary, Joseph P. Tumulty, and finally the second Mrs. Wilson. The Baltimore Sun wrote of congressional suspicions that the idleness of the White House must be blamed on "the dark and mysterious Mr. Tumulty, or, more sinister still, must we look for the woman in the case?"

President Wilson never recovered. Congress adopted the treaty but rejected U.S. entry into the League of Nations. As the election of 1920 approached, the Democratic candidates for President and Vice President, James Cox of Ohio and a chap named Franklin Delano Roosevelt, called on the sick old man. Joining the League would be part of his platform, Cox promised. That finished him. The Republicans' "available man," Warren Harding, won handily; the League was forgotten for good. So, it seemed, was Wilson. Beaten and shattered, he clung to life till a bleak February morning in 1924. Then the country suddenly remembered, and crowds knelt in the street outside the house in Washington.

Edith Wilson lived on, dedicating herself to fiercely safeguarding the memory of her husband. No one knows what the League of Nations might have done if the United States had joined, but without us the League of Nations proved spectacularly fruitless in maintaining peace. After World War II mankind created its strange stepson, the United Nations. Edith Wilson lived to see it all.

In 1961, as a "little old lady" in her late 80s--and just a few months before her death--she sat beside President John F. Kennedy as he signed a bill authorizing a memorial to Woodrow Wilson. He gave her the pen. She took it gratefully. "I didn't dare ask for it," she smiled. They both knew that was a fib.

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