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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
Still more of Philip Dru’s reforms had to wait for the New Deal two decades later. “Labor,” Dru promises, “is no longer to be classed as an inert commodity to be bought and sold by the law of supply and demand … It is my purpose to establish bureaus throughout the congested portions of the United States where men and women in search of employment can register and be supplied with information as to where and what kind of work is obtainable … I desire to make it clear that the policy of this Government is that every man or woman who desires work shall have it, even if the Government has to give it, and I wish it also understood that an adequate wage must be paid for labor.” Federal employment agencies and government work projects, as well as social security, disability insurance, compulsory collective bargaining, regulation of securities and exchange, governmentsponsored co-operative loan societies, and a host of other things that Dru advocated were to be realized in the 1930’s under Franklin Roosevelt.
The extent to which House and his novel contributed to the accomplishment of this reform program is difficult to estimate. In 1917 House confided to his diary: “Philip Dru expresses my thought and aspirations and, at every opportunity I have tried to press rulers, public men, and those influencing public opinion, in that direction.” During Wilson’s administration such pressure from House was unquestionably effective and substantial. Indeed, Wilson read Philip Dru while vacationing in Bermuda between his election and his inauguration.
On the other hand, House’s influence on Roosevelt was at best remote. He knew the young F. D. R. as Wilson’s assistant secretary of the Navy. And on occasions during the early days of the New Deal the Colonel was called to the White House for consultations. These visits led the press to suggest that Roosevelt was basing his program on House’s novel—the authorship was by then known. “The conclusion seems inevitable,” wrote one journalist, “that Edward Mandell House was, if not the father of the New Deal, at least the grandfather.” And another announced that Philip Dru “may well be called the Code Book of the Roosevelt Administration.” But this is very dubious. The program that had been wild-eyed fantasy in 1912 seemed a prudent and necessary development to millions of Americans in 1932. Within another twenty years it would be accepted by both major parties. If Philip Dru anticipated the New Deal by twenty years, it must be credited more to House’s prophetic powers than to his political influence.
Except for the brief flurry of activity at the outset of the New Deal, House’s own reappearances on the political scene were few. He was in the social columns now and again, and through annual trips to Europe he maintained his friendships with such diverse individuals as Clemenceau, Paderewski, Balfour, and the French philosopher Henri Bergson. He wrote an article or two (one, in the January, 1933, issue of Liberty , warned against dictators), but on the whole he remained in retirement until he died, of pleurisy, in 1938. It was as though he had been born only for the self-effacing task for which history remembers him.
It was the same with Philip Dru. As he nears the end of his benevolent dictatorship, a majority of the newly elected House of Representatives urges him to accept the Presidency, but Dru nobly declines, feeling that he can best serve the people by retiring to some obscure corner of the world, thus “freeing them from the shadow of my presence and my name.” Surprisingly, for he has thus far had little time for women, he proposes to his lovely co-worker, Gloria Strawn.
“Come with me, dear heart, into this unknown land and make it glad for me,” he pleads. “Come because I am drunken with love of you and cannot go alone.”
Naturally Gloria, who has “loved him from the very moment she first saw him,” accepts his proposal and the newlyweds go to San Francisco, where they board a “queenly sailing craft, manned and provisioned for a long voyage.”
“The wind has freshened,” we are told as the novel ends, “the sails were filled, and she was going swift as a gull through the Golden Gate into a shimmering sea.… Where were they bound? Would they return? These were the questions asked by all, but to which none could give answer.”