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The Colonel’s Dream Of Power
In a little-known novel President Wilson’s private adviser depicted a benevolent American dictator
February 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 2
Between 1892 and 1902 House had served as the campaign manager and adviser of four governors of Texas—while characteristically refusing any official title. Growing bored with the narrow scope of state politics, he began to look about for a rising national figure to whom he could attach himself. Then, on November 24, 1911, the Governor of New Jersey, presidential aspirant Woodrow Wilson, called on House at his room in the Hotel Gotham in New York. The two men took to each other at once. House’s opportunity had arrived. The following day he wrote his brotherin-law: Wilson “is not the biggest man I have ever met, but he is one of the pleasantest and 1 would rather play with him than with any prospective candidate I have seen … It is just such a chance as I have always wanted for never before have I found both the man and the opportunity.”
Shortly after meeting Wilson, House began writing Philip Dru . He had thought of writing a novel some months earlier and was now surprised at how rapidly he turned out his tale. In a month the first draft, written in longhand on hundreds of small sheets of yellow paper, was finished. If House knew that his opportunity had arrived in his meeting with Wilson, he could not have known what a glorious opportunity it was or that for seven years he was to be one of the most influential men in the United States and, indeed, the world. And so, on the eve of his triumph, House might still get vicarious pleasure from putting his own ambition in the hands of Philip Dru. Outlining Dru’s reasons for assuming dictatorial power, House has him say: “In the long watches of the night, in the solitude of my tent, I conceived a plan of government which, by the grace ol God, I hope to be able to give to the American people.” Years later, House could say for himself: “In the silent watches ol the night and in the quieter moments ol the day, I dreamed great dreams, many of which have since come true .”
It was not only House’s personal ambitions that were to be realized. He poured into Philip Dru , albeit in maudlin and condescending phrases, his bitterness at the appalling condition ol American labor, at the systematic despoilment ol the public by powerful private interests, and at the corruption that prevailed in American politics. Philip Dru stands in the long tradition ol social criticism ranging from Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle to the articles of muckrakers like Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens. What makes House’s novel unique is that it was written by a man who was in a position to have a direct influence on government and that, without the revolution to which Dru resorted, the reforms his creator envisioned were in large measure realized.
In some respects Administrator Dru’s approach to the problems besetting America appear, in retrospect at least, rather grandiose and extreme. “Our government is, perhaps, less responsive to the will of the people than that of almost any of the civilized nations,” Dru announces. “Our Constitution and our laws served us well for the first hundred years of our existence, but under the conditions of to-day they are not only obsolete, but even grotesque. It is nearly impossible tor the desires of our people to find expression into law.” House, it should be recalled, was writing in an era in which, with disturbing frequency, a highly conservative Supreme Court was striking down reform legislation as unconstitutional. Dru proposes the compulsory retirement ol judges at seventy—a step that will call to mind Franklin Roosevelt’s attempt at “court-packing” over two decades later. But Dru goes further: he calls upon a group of legal experts—what would later be called a “brain trust”—to redefine the powers of the courts. He directed that the Supreme Court should be deprived of its power to declare legislation unconstitutional. Later, he intended to rewrite the federal and state constitutions altogether.
If some aspects of Philip Dru’s program seem extreme, most of it has become quite familiar over the years. Under Dru’s administration, tariffs are sharply reduced from the heights they had reached at the turn of the century. An income tax is introduced. (The rates are modest by today’s standards: incomes between $10,000 and $20,000 are subjected by Dru to a tax of 6 per cent; incomes of ten million dollars or more, to a maximum of 70 per cent.) A new banking law is enacted, providing for a flexible currency and designed to “destroy the credit trust, the greatest, the most far reaching and, under evil direction, the most pernicious trust of all.” Prohibitions of combinations in restraint of trade are tightened. Female suffrage is accepted. In one form or another, all of these measures that House advanced in fiction became realities during Wilson’s administration. One can understand the amazement of Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane, who wrote: “All that book has said should be comes about.… The President comes to Philip Dru in the end.”