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Ghosts In The White House
Discreet helpers have worked on the speeches and papers of many Presidents, but a nation in a time of trial will respond best “to the Great Man himself, standing alone”
December 1958 | Volume 10, Issue 1
Wilson’s somewhat battered machine accompanied him to the White House, and on the evening of his inauguration, after a dinner with 25 Wilson relatives, “he retired to his study on the second floor, to his own typewriter and his problems.” Within a few days he had to face a critical situation in Latin America. At a Cabinet meeting he drew from his pocket a typed copy of his proposed announcement, with changes and additions in his own flowing script. Secretary Houston reported, “I do not know to what extent the President had consulted Bryan, but Bryan had not presented the matter; and the President did the reading. Bryan listened with a smile on his face and nodded approval as the President read.” Thus early and openly in his administration did the master take charge. A sadder picture is that of Wilson, after a Cabinet meeting on August 4, 1914, hurrying to the bedside of his dying wife and there jotting down in shorthand his message tendering the good offices of the President of the United States, if they should be desired, “in the interests of European peace.” Even he, however, once yielded to temptation, for research has recently turned up the original draft of his “neutrality in thought” proclamation of August 18, 1914, in the handwriting of Robert Lansing, with annotations by Secretary Bryan. I am sure that Wilson, shaken by the death of his wife, was willing in this instance to let his associates temporarily take over.
Nevertheless Wilson usually preferred to think his problems out and act alone. Jerome D. Greene has mentioned Wilson’s “intellectual obstinacy and his unwillingness to expose himself to advice from men of contrary opinions to his own.” In this respect the President was not unique. For the famous Lusitania note, issued on May 13, 1915, he made several successive drafts on his typewriter, revising them one after another in longhand. On the night of March 31, 1917, having already called Congress into extraordinary session, he rose from bed and carried his portable to the south veranda of the White House. Mrs. Wilson brought him a bowl of milk and crackers from the kitchen. Then and there he tapped out the sentences which he read to Congress on April 2, when he declared that “The right is more precious than peace.”
When Secretary Baker handed him his original statement designating June 3, 1917, as the date for military registration, Wilson couldn’t resist the impulse to correct it as he had done with many an undergraduate theme. No one formulated phrases for Woodrow Wilson. They took shape in his own teeming mind, and one after another they symbolized stages in our history: “Opinion ultimately governs the world”; “Peace without victory”; “Too proud to fight”; “The world must be made safe for democracy”; “Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at.” In Wilson’s brain everything had to be orderly before he could communicate. This country has never had a more fluent and logical impromptu speaker. No ghost writer of his generation could have imitated his crisp, precise style.
The literary contrast between him and his immediate successor was so striking as to be ludicrous. On the other hand, Harding’s speeches were as unmistakably his own as Wilson’s had been. No one who heard the Republican Senator on May 14, 1920, in Boston, is likely to forget the impression made by his “big bowwow style of oratory” as he declaimed: America’s present need is not heroics but healing, not nostrums but normalcy, not revolution but restoration, not agitation but adjustment, not surgery but serenity, not the dramatic but the dispassionate, not experiment but equipoise, not submergence in internationality but sustainment in triumphant nationality.
One can imagine the complacency with which Harding dictated this balanced alliterative nonsense and the scholar’s contempt with which Wilson read it in his morning newspaper. No reputable ghost writer would have allowed Harding to put it into print, but no one was asked to give advice. That the passage expressed his personality is unquestionable.
No Brain Trust occupied rooms in the White House in the 1920’s. Calvin Coolidge, following a habit formed when he was governor, composed virtually all his speeches and messages, writing them out in longhand on unruled yellow sheets and then having them copied by his stenographer. When he once rashly agreed to dedicate Aeolian Hall in Boston, he realized that he knew nothing about music and promptly enlisted the co-operation of a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. But Mr. Coolidge was honest, and when a collection of his speeches was about to be edited, he told Frank W. Stearns, “That Aeolian Hall talk is pretty good, but it isn’t mine. Keep it out!”