Madam President: The Secret Presidency of Edith Wilson, by William Hazelgrove ISBN 9781621574750
Five out of five stars
This is a fascinating recapitulation of what was a constitutional crisis that was present, thoroughly known and understood, yet avoided due to strength exhibited by some and weakness by others. It was of course a different time, when the press and Congress tended to defer more than they do now.
In the fall of 1919, President Woodrow Wilson suffered a severe stroke that largely rendered his left side paralyzed. His mental functions and physical stamina were also severely degraded so that in fact he could not execute the duties of the office. It was at this point where his wife Edith Wilson took power in the form of totally controlling who visited President Wilson and what documents and other matters were presented to him.
The functioning of the executive branch essentially ground to a halt, leading to major historical repercussions. The treaties ending World War I and establishing the American involvement in the League of Nations were being considered by the Senate and there was significant opposition to Wilson’s position.
Vice President Thomas R. Marshall was a man disliked by Wilson’s inner circle and he was unwilling to aggressively assume the role of acting president. Their relationship was described as one of "functioning animosity." It was a situation that demonstrated a major deficiency in the constitutional description of what to do when a president is incapacitated but still alive that was addressed in the twenty-fifth amendment.
The events are not presented in chronological order, the timeline moves back and forth from before the stroke to after the fact. This helps set up specific aspects of the role that Edith Wilson played and the historical significance of Wilson’s illness. Hazelgrove does an excellent job of establishing the historical context intermixed with a great deal of detail regarding how the executive branch functioned after Wilson’s stroke.
One of the most interesting facts is that Edith Wilson served as a decoder of encrypted messages while she was first lady, helping the White House keep up with the volume of messages received. She did this before the stroke, so she was kept current with how events were evolving around the world.
This book is a valuable addition to the historical record, even though it is written as popular history. Edith Wilson was a de facto president at a time when suffragettes were picketing outside the White House for the right to vote.