The Colonel’s Dream Of Power

“In the year 1920, the student and the statesman saw many indications that the social, financial and industrial troubles that had vexed the United States of America lor so long a time were about to culminate in civil war.

“Wealth had grown so strong, that the few were about to strangle the many, and among the great masses of the people, there was sullen and rebellious discontent.

“The laborer in the cities, the producer on the farm, the merchant, the professional man and all save organized capital and its satellites, saw a gloomy and hopeless future.”

These are the opening lines of a novel that appeared in 1912 under the title Philip Dru: Administrator . The tale that followed is quickly told: Philip Dru, a graduate of West Point, incapacitated for a military career through illness, sees the plight of the masses of his fellow countrymen and becomes the leader of a popular insurrection against a corrupt and reactionary administration in Washington. The rebellion meets with success, and Dru emerges as dictator of the country. Under his rule the Republic is saved from selfish interests, sweeping reforms are introduced, and democracy is restored. After almost eight years of benevolent despotism Dru turns over his powers to the people and modestly retires from the scene.

The author of this political fantasy was as self-effacing as his hero: the work was published anonymously. “The authorship of Philip Dru: Administrator,” said the New York Times in January, 1913, “still remains a puzzle to those persons, not uncommon, who like to establish the association between a man and his work. Philip Dru is a real enigma …” In reality, the author of the enigma was one of the most remarkable men in American history—the man whom Woodrow Wilson once called “my second personality … my independent self“—Colonel Edward M. House of Texas.

For Edward Mandell House, who relished political intrigue, the public bewilderment over the authorship oi Philip Dru must have been a source of delight. It must also have been pleasing to B. W. Hnebsch, the publisher. Anonymity made good advertising copy, and the element of mystery was played to the hilt. While Huebsch laboriously typed his own letters to House lest even his stenographer discover the true author, the advertisements announced that the anonymous writer was “a man distinguished in political councils. He knows,” the ads said, “the entire woof and warp of politics and finance; he discloses the methods of the men who are today pulling the wires which make the government move; he shows just how and why it is that Washington sneezes when Wall street takes snuff. If a great political ‘boss’ were suddenly to tell all that he knows , it would sound very much like this book.”

House took pleasure not only in the mystified reception ol his novel, but in the writing ol it as well. “I was … surprised,” he later wrote, “to find how much I was interested in doing this kind of work.” The reasons why House, in the midst of a busy campaign to win the Democratic presidential nomination for Wilson, should have enjoyed indulging in 300 pages of political fantasy are not far to seek, indeed, the Colonel (the title was purely honorific) revealed them himself. Sending a copy of Philip Dru to a friend in 1915 he wrote: “It was written by a man I know.… My friend—whose name is not to be mentioned—told me … that Philip was all that he himself would like to be but was not.” House was unimpressive at first glance, a poor orator, a subtle persuader in private councils but ineffective in the public forum. Dru, on the other hand, was a handsome, dashing, popular leader. More important, whereas House’s influence (which in time would be enormous) depended in large measure on his obscurity, Dru was the heroic champion of the masses. Where House murmured wisdom from behind the throne, he seated his literary hero firmly on the throne.

House was acutely aware of his shortcomings, and, realizing that a successful career as a public figure was closed to him, resigned himself to remaining in the shadows of the great. ”… I had no ambition to hold office …” he reminisced, “because I felt … that I would fall short of the first place, and nothing less than that would satisfy me … My ambition has been so great that it has never seemed to me worth while to strive to satisfy it.” And yet by modifying that ambition House succeeded in satisfying it to a remarkable degree. For as a backstage organizer, political sleuth, confidential adviser and agent, House was superb. He could, it was said, “walk on dead leaves and make no more noise than a tiger.”