Our Sickest Presidents: The Third Finalist
Our third finalist: Woodrow Wilson
Ever joked that someone with half-a-brain could do as good a job as a president you don’t particularly care for? Well, people in 1920 got to try that on for real with Woodrow Wilson, president from March 1913 to March 1921 (in those days if you won the November election you didn’t start your actual term until the next March.) Mr. Wilson has had the misfortune of having his medical history extensively examined during the years of Freudian psychology ascendancy but it appears he had probably suffered from cerebral vascular disease for years. He’d had transient loss of vision in one eye in 1906, numbness and weakness on one side of his body in 1896 and so on. By the time he was in the White House he’d had possibly several strokes in his life but the biggest one occurred while he was in the bathroom of the White House October 2, 1919. He was found on the bathroom floor, completely unable to speak and paralyzed. Based on the cuts on his nose and temple, it appeared he had been sitting on the toilet, suffered a stroke and fallen forward into the edge of the bathtub.
Now, some of you might think that this kind of condition would be an impediment to actually doing the job of president of the United States. That just shows you are not the kind of thinker that Edith Galt Wilson, Wilson’s second wife, was. Aided by the White House doctor, Cary T. Grayson and a loyal coterie of White House staff, she quickly threw up a cordon sanitaire around the ailing president, who lay, in the words of one who did see him “as if he were dead” in the Lincoln bedroom.
Incredibly, for the next several months, the business requiring the participation of the president was carried out in the following manner: Dr. Grayson, or Edith Wilson would enter the sanctum with the papers that needed reviewing and signing and return sometime later to report what the president had “thought” and “said” or “ordered” in the matter. They are even thought to have gone so far as to forge notes and signatures. And they got away with it too, due to the absence of any meddling kids…or reporters…or upset employees.
Of course, people weren’t that stupid—another factor that helped, besides their immediate and close control of the information flow was that it was probably in the best interests of most of the staff and politicians around to maintain the fiction that Wilson was still actually in charge, rather than not actually really aware of his surroundings.
Wilson did eventually make a partial recovery, enough to talk and walk somewhat, although he probably never was able to climb stairs. He was left demented by his stroke and the ongoing cerebral vascular disease and lived quietly for the almost three years he lived after leaving office. His dementia gave him some odd fixations. He became obsessed with speeding, and would direct his secret service detail to chase cars he believed were going to fast. They would usually tell him they tried to catch the person but they were going too fast, and that seemed to satisfy him.
Some people call Edith Galt Wilson America’s first female president. As she liked to boast that she had Native American ancestry, perhaps she was our first Native American president as well.
Next week: Our final finalist
More interesting details about Wilson's stroke: http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/wilsonstroke.htm