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The Colonel’s Folly And The President’s Distress
In a paper written in 1926 but now first published here, Woodrow Wilson’s personal physician refutes other accounts of the break with Colonel House
October 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 6
One of the most interesting and, on occasion, bitter disputes in modern American history concerns the sudden end, in 1919, of the remarkable friendship between President Woodrow Wilson and the adviser lie called his “second personality,” Colonel Edward M. House. Operating behind tlie scenes, self-effacing, tlie quiet Texan nevertheless nursed dreams of power; once, anonymously, lie wrote a novel about a man very like himself who becomes a hind of benevolent American dictator ( AMERICAN HERITAGE , February, 1959). As to what separated him from his chief. House seemed to think it was his and Wilson’s illnesses at a crucial time—as well as jealousies in the inner circle. His deathbed reflections on the subject, taken down by the late President diaries Seymour of Yale find kept secret for twenty-five years, were published in our August, 1963, issue, just before Mr. Seymour himself died.
The four volumes of The Intimate Papers of Colonel House , edited by Mr. Seymour, began to appear in 1926. two years alter Wilson died. They stirred the embers of controversy and led Admiral Cary Travers Grayson to write the important paper that begins at right. The Virginia-born Admiral was a young naval surgeon when he was chosen to become personal physician to Theodore Roosevelt. After T. R. (who over-exercised), Dr. Grayson took over the care of William Howard Taft (who overate) and finally of Woodrow Wilson (who overworked). The Admiral’s relations with the war President were deep and abiding, and lasted until Wilson died in 1924. He went everywhere with him, and he saw the unique relationship with House as it flourished, and as it finally withered. In a sense his article is a direct refutation of what House told Seymour, although, of course, the Colonel never saw it, for this is a debate, in both cases, from beyond the grave: both House and Grayson died in 1938. The Admiral, an old-fashioned gentleman of tad and restraint—he was later a great chairman of the American Red Cross—decided it was too early to publish his article. Aow, however, that death has removed almost all the actors from the scene, the Admiral’s three sons have concluded that it should be printed.
In 1912, or ’14, or ’16, or ’17, probably any intimate associate of Mr. Wilson’s would have thought and said that if Colonel E. M. House should ever publish a book about Woodrow Wilson it would be a eulogium. When The Intimate Papers of Colonel House were published in 1926 a great many people were shocked, not because of the picture presented of Mr. Wilson but by the picture presented of Colonel House. The self-exploitation in that book amazed many, for it seemed entirely contrary to the nature of the man.
Comparatively early in the Wilson administration Colonel House had remarked that he had just one object and purpose in life, and that was to present Woodrow Wilson to the world as he really was in all his greatness, and yet when The Intimate Papers appeared they represented Colonel House as the inspiration, the originator, and almost the dictator of many of the most important Wilsonian policies. Il is a curious study in psychology. Was Colonel House always self-deceived, and did he consciously or unconsciously deceive Mr. Wilson as to the manner of man he was, or did he subtly change as the years progressed?
The general opinion about Colonel House’s book is unfavorable, but there are many people who, not knowing of the relationship of the two men, are perplexed and who ask if after all Colonel House really was the dominating spirit in shaping the most imortant Wilsonian policies. It is because I have heard that sort of question asked that I feel called upon to set down my impressions and recollections of Colonel House as I saw him in his contacts with President Wilson during the changing years.
In trying to explain Colonel House and his curious book I find myself going back to days prior to his association with Mr. Wilson—to the time when he figured in the politics of the state of Texas. Politics there is a very personal thing. Men more than measures engage the attention of the people, and Colonel House developed in Texas the personal approach to politics and politicians. He seems never to have craved office for himself, but he had a strong ambition to be influential in the selection of other men for office. He worked behind clic scenes. His methods were never corrupt, but they were adroit and diplomatic. He was more or less the agent in the selection of more than one governor of Texas, and it pleased his imagination to look upon himself as a sort of kingmaker, to exert power without incurring responsibility, to put other men on (he high road to office. I am not bringing into question his sincerity when I say that for him politics was a game, it delighted him to move the pieces on the board.