First Ladies Who Did More than Smile and Nod

by Joe Rosenberg

Edith and Woodrow: The Wilson White House
by Phyllis Lee Levin
Lisa Drew-Scribner, 2001
If elected President on her own, Hillary Rodham Clinton will not be the first woman to wield power in the White House. That honor goes to the second wife of Thomas Woodrow Wilson, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, who, upon her husband's paralyzing stroke in October of 1919, assumed the role of acting President. She and her physician ally Cary Grayson controlled access to the stricken President and issued orders in his name. This is well documented in 606 pages by author Levin in Edith and Woodrow.

Already jealous of her husband's top aides, Edith Wilson ignored all signs that the US Senate was willing to compromise on the League of Nations. She had her husband demand that, should the Senate try to change the League charter and Peace Treaty, Senate Democrats should vote to defeat the amended legislation. She never told her husband about the vicious and unconstitutional investigations and deportations sponsored by Attorney General Mitchell Palmer and his aide, J.Edgar Hoover. She had the Secretary of State resign for calling Cabinet meetings. Most foreign and domestic issues were ignored from October 1919 until March 1921, when a new president was sworn in.

Mrs. Wilson hid the President's true condition from almost everyone who needed to know, including the public. Until the day she died she kept revising history to glorify her husband, whose stubborn arrogance undercut his meritorious ideals way before he became president. Wilson came to the Paris Peace Conferences after World War I as a hero and departed as a politician way beyond his diplomatic depths.

No Ordinary Time: Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II
by Doris Kearns Goodwin
On the other hand, Eleanor Roosevelt, acting as the eyes and ears of her crippled husband, never intruded on his exercise of power but was a tireless advocate of civil rights and the New Deal program. In her Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, No Ordinary Time, Mrs. Goodwin takes 759 fact-filled pages to document the extraordinary lives of the Hyde Park Roosevelts.

By 1944 FDR was gravelly ill, but Eleanor, still reacting to her husband's adulterous behavior in 1917, refused FDR's request that she spend more time with him. Not that the President was devoid of female companionship, having several relationships with his top assistant, a European queen, and his old flame. Eleanor herself had infatuations with a young man and several women who are thought to be lesbians. The couple's romances certainly would be worth years of tabloid material today, in addition to calls for public beheadings.

Besides the contrast between the wives, their husbands also were vastly different men. Wilson was an ardent maintainer of the status-quo regarding racial inequities and women's suffrage. FDR, with prodding from Eleanor, put women in the factories and blacks in non-menial tasks in the military.

It is clear that, absent the war, FDR should have never run for a fourth term, but even in his last days he was striving to end the war and secure a peace afterwards. By contrast, Wilson, after his stroke, never regained his role as an inspiring leader. FDR learned from Wilson's mistakes and took a bipartisan approach to the founding of the United Nations.

Wilson wouldn't compromise; FDR perhaps was too eager to do so. A true patrician, FDR could still identify with the common man. A wannabe prophet, Wilson pontificated big ideals and mean judgments. Despite the perfidy of the Soviets, FDR prepared for a just peace and a postwar prosperity. He also proposed the GI bill, which educated and housed our veterans. It was not until Truman's early watch that the US let colonialism return to Indochina and Eastern Europe.

Wilson, because of his own vanity, left a tattered peace process that unduly punished Germany and did little for the soldiers who fought for their country. The best thing Wilson accomplished was leaving a set of international ideals for Roosevelt to carry out.

Edith, loyal beyond the grave, tried to suppress the real facts about her husband's chronic poor health and legacy, But Eleanor attended to her own legacy rather than worrying about her husband's. She never interfered with those who would write about FDR. Her gift to posterity is the Bill of Human Rights she lobbied through the UN, while Edith's is a self-serving memoir and a failed movie depicting her husband as a secular saint.

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This story was published on February 20, 2004.