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
When Governor Woodrow Wilson of New Jersey came to be regarded as a likely candidate for the Democratic nomination for the Presidency, the politicians in Texas were immensely interested. It has been said that Colonel House did not at first regard the Wilson candidacy very seriously or very favorably; that he was more inclined toward” Governor Harmon ∗ as a tried and seasoned politician of the recognized type. However that may be, in time Colonel House became a cordial supporter of Governor Wilson and had more or less influence in getting the Texas delegation to the Baltimore convention committed to his candidacy, though Colonel House himself did not attend the convention. After Mr. Wilson had been nominated and elected, he got to know the Colonel personally and acquired a high regard for his sagacity—his ability to estimate men and forecast measures. Gradually, before Mr. Wilson was inaugurated, he came to consult more and more with this quiet, shrewd Texan about the men whom he should select for his Cabinet and for other important offices.
∗ Governor Judson Harmon of Ohio, before the 1912 Democratic convention, was considered a leading contender for the presidential nomination.
Colonel House used to visit Princeton occasionally to hold conferences with the President-elect, and it is said that he always made the impression of a very quiet, modest, unassuming, clearheaded man. That was the impression he made on me when I first met him—on the day of Mr. Wilson’s inauguration on March 4, 1913. It was characteristic of the Colonel House of those days that he kept well in the background. He did not attend the inauguration exercises, but was present at the luncheon which followed. He was an engaging sort of man to whom I felt myself drawn at the first introduction—a slender figure, with face unmarked and unseamed by heavy lines of thought, with a pleasant smile, a solt southern voice, a cordial handshake, a quiet humor. Dut one feature of his face was disappointing—a chin which was inclined to recede. We had many good talks together, he and I, sometimes about politics, sometimes about nothing in particular, each of us fond of anecdotes about the simple southern folk of Texas and Virginia.
Having great reverence myself for the President, I was pleased by Colonel House’s respectful attitude toward him. lie was the least aggressive of men. Not »nee in all the \ears did I ever hear him dill’er witIi (he President or argue a point or press a renversai !on too hard. I IeIt he had tact, that he knew how to spare the President’s tired nerves: at luncheon, lot instance, he was more ready to assist the conversation into light, jocose channels than Io bring up public business for discussion. I was fond of William Gibbs Mc Adoo,1 but I could see that Mr. McAdoo’s intense and restless energy sometimes wore upon the President. Wl]en the President sat down to a meal he wanted relaxation. 1 Ie did not want to discuss knotty public problems. Mr. McAdoo, who never thought of anything except public business, would insist on guiding the conversation into a serious vein that too frequently irritated the President. Colonel House was the opposite of this—tactful, restful, uncontrovcrsial.
† The then Secretary of the Treasury, who later married Wilson’s daughter Eleanor.
There was another side to Colonel House which I equally admired. He seemed to me to be a thoroughly disinterested man. He wanted no office himsell and his one desire, it seemed, was to be helpful to the President in the selection of men for appointments. Hc was good-natured, patient, a ready, willing go-between for the President with the office seekers. Hc seemed to have the capacity to take a broad view of the whole political field, and for this, among other reasons, was regarded by President Wilson as one of his best advisers.
He talked about men more than about measures. Thai is why it seems all the more grotesque that he should represent himself iu his book as the originator of the underlying thought ol the League of Nations, the I’cderal Reserve Ad. and other great constructive measures, national and international. Political philosopher he was not, but he knew people.
In the Intimate Papers , the Colonel naively portrays his methods of ingratiation in his account ol his first meeting with the Argentine ambassador on December 19, 1914. Arrangement was made over the telephone for a meeting at eleven ihirty in the morning, and, says the Colonel. “I hurriedly gathered together what data I could get concerning Argentina and iqxm Xaon himsell.” \\hen he met the ambassador, he says: “I began the conversation by complimenting Xaon upon the advanced thought in his country particularly in regard to penal reform. I considered the Argentine fifty or one hundred years ahead of Kurope and the United States in that direction. I marvelled at the statesmanship that saw as long ago as 1864, when they had their war with Uruguay, that a victorious nation had no moral right to despoil the territory of the vanquished. After I had made these few remarks, I had fertile soil upon which to sow the seeds of my argument.”
Priming oneself for an interview with a prominent man by a study of the encyclopaedia or other reference books is a proven political dodge, but it is precisely the sort of thing that President Wilson never could bring himself to do. The Colonel knew anil practiced the tricks which Mr. Wilson ignored.