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If you need help imagining Woodrow Wilson, picture a college professor named Thomas, now you're probably already there, but make sure he's wearing wire framed glasses and an unsettled expression.
That's not a trick.
The 28th president of the United States was actually named Thomas and Thomas Woodrow Wilson taught at Princeton for 13 years. But by the end of his presidency, Wilson didn't look like a scholar. He looked sick and afraid, because he was.
Welcome to very presidential, a parcast original, I'm your host, Ashleigh Flowers, you can find all episodes of very presidential and all other cast originals for free on Spotify.
And if you like what you're hearing, reach out on Facebook and Instagram at podcast and Twitter at Parcast network. Today, I'm covering Thomas Woodrow Wilson, sometimes known as the World War One president, often remembered as the mind behind the League of Nations. Wilson was one of the most polarizing presidents to ever hold office, in the words of his friend turned foe, Senator Thomas Pryor Gore. Wilson had no friends, only slaves and enemies.
Yikes. All of that is coming up. Stay with us. Woodrow Wilson collected academic degrees the way JFK collected women. With a Ph.D. in political science, Dr. Wilson became America's first true academic president. But here's the thing. He had almost no political experience. On his first day, Woodrow had written more American history than he'd actually made. As he posed for pictures in the Oval Office, he was just a guy hoping nobody would notice that he carried a lot of secrets around with him and many of them had to do with his health problems.
That started 22 years earlier in 1891. Back then, Woodrow rings in the year teaching at Princeton. He's 5'11, about 170 pounds with these piercing gray eyes. And he's not what you would call a fun professor. He's serious and incredibly private, but he got the gig for a reason. He is whip smart and he's got an ego to match his IQ. Now, supposedly, he's got a softer side to him. He loves ridiculous puns and limerick.
But besides, maybe his family, very few people get to see that side of him or know how ambitious he really is because he masks that ambition with insincere modesty. But under the surface, he fully believes he's this devout superhero burdened by his own intelligence. He spends pretty much every waking moment mapping out strategies in his head for how to solve all the world's problems.
The downside is all that mental exertion really stresses him out, and all that stress takes a toll on his health. One day he's writing a letter and Woodrow's hand starts to really, like, kind of act up. He's finding it hard to even grip his pen, but he just kind of dismisses it. He sucks it up and deals with it for five years, just basically ignoring the glaring concerns, as he often does. But when he does that, it never ends well.
Then in May 1896, a pain shoots down Woodrow's right arm and his hand starts to tighten, his fingertips go numb. Now, this actually scares Woodrow enough to see a doctor, but he gets good news. The doctor says, oh, you do a lot of writing. It's probably just writer's cramp, but it wasn't. A century's worth of medical hindsight tells us that Woody's carotid artery, the one that brings the blood to his brain, is probably a little clogged.
So most likely he'd actually suffered a stroke, his first. Now, despite the doctor's lack of concern, Woodrow's wife Ellen is worried. She insists he take a vacation to rest so he ships off to Europe, leaving Ellen to take care of their three children. Woodrow's sacrificial vacation pays off. He comes back feeling refreshed, so much so that he makes it his goal to take more of them.
But his health problems are not fixed. In 1906, Woodrow is now the president of Princeton. He wakes up one morning, greets Ellen, but notices that she looks off and he can't quite place why until he realizes that he can't see anything out of his left eye. He has had another stroke, bringing the total to two.
Woodrow is seven years from holding the most powerful position in the world and a trans fat sandwich away from the great. Now a doctor recommends Woodrow change his lifestyle, eat better, exercise more, brood less. But Woodrow doesn't have any of it. He seeks alternate opinions until he's prescribed what he really wants.
Another European vacation.
At this point, Ellen discreetly tells her cousin that Woodrow is dying by inches, which makes his decision to later run for president ethically questionable, especially because he keeps the state of his health entirely under wraps. Now, when Woodrow pivots into politics in 1910, it's shady.
He's propped up by backdoor politics and the machine of the Democratic Party. But eventually he abandons that to supposedly work for the little guy. He makes these dramatic announcements that he's nobody's political puppet. And it turns out he is an incredible public speaker.
Some argue the best there ever was his way with words brings him all the way to November 1910 when he becomes governor of New Jersey. But he uses the role as a stepping stone. With only one year under his belt, the Seattle Daily Times drops Woodrow's name in the same breath as presidency. At first, Wilson performs a song and dance routine, pretending he's uninterested. But Ellen doesn't have it. She tells him, You're lying, Woodrow to yourself and everyone else, you know, you're going to run. And yet, for whatever reason, history forgets the woman who nudged him towards the White House.
And I'm not talking about Ellen, his mistress. Remember that vacation after his second stroke, Woodrow went to Europe, yes, but he also went to Bermuda where he met a woman named Mary Allen Hulbert Peck.
Mary was the kind of person who wintered in Bermuda and summered in Massachusetts. A talented artist, cook and conversationalist. She apparently had this aura of intrigue about her, which might have been because she smoked cigarettes and vacationed without her husband. Woody loved that Mary could go toe to toe with his wit, something his enormous ego believed was a feat. She tickled his heart strings in a way he'd never felt before, and the tickling was mutual. It might have helped that Woodrow's
Real name was Thomas. Mary had a thing for that name at the time. She was in a loveless marriage with her second husband, Thomas Peck, preceded by her first Thomas Holbert. Anyway, during his 1907 trip, Thomas Woodrow Wilson and Mary Peck get well acquainted. But not physically, not yet. They're tied down by social obligations on pink sand beaches with crystal clear waters.
The timing isn't meant to be. Just as sparks begin to fly, it's time for Woodrow to return home to his wife and three kids, which, by the way, while Woody is resting his weary bones in Mary's company, Ellen is nursing their sick child back at home. Before Woodrow leaves, though, he writes Mary a note. It reads, "It's not often that I can have the privilege of meeting anyone whom I can so entirely admire and enjoy."
Like I said his words, they had an effect on people. After the trip, Woodrow and Mary start exchanging hundreds of letters. Within a year Woodrow was including seductive phrases like Tell me everything you can about yourself. Suggesting an emotional investment, Woodrow punctuated the letters with actual trips to Bermuda, where Mary wined and dined him at her dinner parties, along with guests like Mark Twain. To answer a question, you're probably thinking it's unclear if the two spent any alone time together, bedroom or otherwise.
At this point. Maybe they did. Maybe Twain couldn't read a room we don't actually know.
But one day in Bermuda, Woodrow is sitting with Mary and getting in his head about the future. He says he's at a fork in the road. One path leads to the White House. The other path is less clear. He basically asked Mary if he should choose power or the less examined life. And she chooses power. She says, "why not?" By Mary's estimation the life of the next Democratic president is going to be hell, she says.
It might even be fatal, but she tells Woodrow that he'd be good at it. She knows that he'd rather die fighting for his ideals than fall short of his destiny. Mary's evaluation was spot on. The life of the next Democratic president would be hell, and the job would take his life.
Coming up, the world gets its first look at what kind of ideals Woodrow Wilson fights for, and many of them would feel at home surrounded by white hoods. And now back to the story. In the 1912 election, Woodrow Wilson runs against two former presidents, William Howard Taft and Teddy Roosevelt. According to most history books, Woodrow collects more than enough votes to win in a landslide victory. But Roosevelt did Woodrow a favor by running completely unintentionally because Teddy played to the same crowd as Taft.
So while Teddy and Taft are both fighting for the same votes, Woodrow eases on down to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And Teddy still might have beat Wilson if only he was more of a gossip. In the throes of the election, a Roosevelt staffer gets wind of Woodrow and Mary's love letters. The affair letters, basically the dirt. The staffer thinks like, oh, my God, this is great. We're going to leak this news to the press drag Woodrow Wilson squeaky clean reputation through the mud.
And Teddy is going to be thrilled, right? Well, you would think so because you would think that a politician would handle this one of two ways. Take the low road or take the high road. But Teddy takes a weird third road, the road of disbelief. He tells the informant that no evidence could ever make the American people believe that a man like Woodrow Wilson cast so perfectly as the apothecary's clerk could ever play Romeo. In other words, Woodrow couldn't catch a woman if Teddy handed him one of his bear traps.
Whether or not he believes that Woodrow is having an affair doesn't matter. The American people won't. So the smear campaign never happens. Now, to be fair, plenty of people found Woodrow attractive, he wasn't Brad Pitt, but he could pass for Hugh Laurie. That said, Roosevelt wasn't alone in his egg headed schoolboy perception of Wilson. History often remembers Dr. Woodrow Wilson's presidency studiously behind a desk. It was a well crafted image in photos. He's either writing a letter, earnestly answering the phone, intentionally pointing or some combination of the three.
In reality, nobody was sitting there counting, but most days he probably spent three, maybe four hours behind a desk, which isn't to say that those hours weren't efficient. But when he wasn't sitting, he was playing golf apparently poorly. By some accounts. He was playing golf nearly every day when he wasn't on the course or at his desk. He did other presidential things like have lunch and read the Bible. The point is whether he was missing putts or reflecting on the word of God.
Wilson had to relax. Remember, he was fragile. Since we last left Woodrow's health, a slew of symptoms have been added to his medical card migraines, exhaustion, body aches, anxiety. Woodrow couldn't spend all day working. I mean, the man could ponder for too long and have a stroke, which is exactly what happens. His first year in office, Woodrow's stroke count hits three. This one affects his left arm instead of his right, which is unusual and concerning, more than likely, a blockage is now limiting blood flow to both sides of his brain.
Woodrow's body has always been a time bomb, but this really shortens the fuse. The lack of oxygen reaching his brain can affect his behavior temporarily and permanently. But Woodrow says "it's fine, I'm not concerned what president needs a discerning, even temperament anyway?" Meanwhile, Ellen's more rational. She says, you know what? I'm going to go consult some more doctors. Staying alive is the least you can do for the world. But don't worry, I'll do it behind your back.
What she finds is not good. During her detective work, one doctor tells Ellen that if things keep going the way they're going, Woodrow won't survive term one. But after a while, Woodrow starts to prove that maybe he is fine. Things are going swimmingly with a Democratic majority in the House. He passes legislation like it's going out of style. He plays to his strengths; writing and speaking, and stands before his peers and pleads his case for a progressive, anti-establishment America.
If you're a white, blue collar American Woodrow's fighting for you, unless you're a woman, he's not interested in allowing that half of the country to vote. I mean, eventually he comes around, but it takes some reflection and nudging from his wife and three daughters. But if you're Black, Wilson is definitely fighting against you.
It may or may not come as a shock that Woodrow was racist, but he was really racist. And sure, times were different back then and many people were. But Woodrow was registering off the charts even for his day. There's plenty of receipts to prove it, and they start young. As a kid, he chased Black children out of town while wearing a Native American headdress and face paint. When the American Civil War ends, Woodrow walks away with a warped reality.
Historians call it the cult of the lost cause. He thinks the war was about states rights, not slavery. That the Confederacy fought nobly, but lost because they were the underdog, not because they were on the wrong side of history. And he takes those delusions with him to Princeton, where he publishes a five volume tome called The History of the American People. In it, he calls the KKK a veritable empire that fought to protect the South. He describes the process of freeing slaves as a menace to society and praises those slaves who, quote, "stayed very quietly by their old masters."
So while he wasn't a member of the Ku Klux Klan, he was a fan. And go figure, the admiration was mutual. Woodrow is quoted in the title Cards of the Birth of a Nation, the Hollywood film that portrays the KKK as heroes and went on to inspire the group's revival. At a mind numbing three hours and 13 minutes, its may be the longest white savior narrative ever made, and Woody screens it at the White House. When the film finishes, he reportedly leans over to someone and says it's like writing history with lightning.
My only regret is that it's also terribly true.
While Wilson is fighting the man in Congress, he was also segregating the White House. He waltzed in and fired 15 of 17 black federal workers.
Fans of Wilson like to say, well, he didn't propose the separation of hand towels, drinking glasses or bathrooms, and he didn't build the cage that separated the black clerk from his peers. And no, he didn't, but he did nothing to stop it.
As with all ugly realities, he took a hands off approach. Hands off approach could also be the name for Wilson's foreign policy. He has zero experience in international relations, so he doesn't really think much about it. Which poses a problem when, in 1914, the world goes to war, the Great War, World War One.
As spring turns to summer, Woodrow continues to ignore everything in his life, his health, his cheating, the bloodshed tearing across Europe come July. Ellen's health gets added to that list, too. She's having problems with her kidney.
Now, you might think Woodrow handles this situation, how he handles his own health, shrug it off, slap a Band-Aid on it. And by some accounts, that's what happened. But historians have recently suggested another version of events. Woodrow wasn't told much of anything about Ellen's health, at least not how bad it really was. In order not to trigger Woodrow's stress levels, doctors softened the sharp edges of the truth.
And as a result, Ellen didn't get the treatment she needed. In a tragic twist of fate, Woodrow Wilson lived to see another term, but his wife didn't. She died of kidney failure on August 6th, 1914. Depending on your lens, you could say that Ellen might have died to save Woodrow or even because of Woodrow without him ever knowing.
But one thing is clear. Ellen's death ruined Woodrow. Afterward, he said that he was not fit to be president anymore. His heart just wasn't in it.
Of course, we shouldn't hold him to those words. When he said them, he was deeply grieving. And as we know, everyone grieves differently. And if you're Woodrow Wilson, you grieve by jumping into bed with another woman. Coming up, Woodrow finds a new wife and proposes a plan for world peace while hallucinating soldiers in his home.
And now back to the story. Woodrow's decision not to enter World War One surprises no one. By 1915, the allied forces fighting Germany are all but writing Willson letters asking if he and his massive army want to come play in the sandbox. But Wilson says, hey, you know, I'd love to help, but I have a lot on my plate right now. You know what? With my re-election campaign, my recently deceased wife and my mistress asking for favors like not a good time for me.
And yeah, Mary and Woodrow haven't stopped writing or seeing each other. And with Ellen out of the picture, Mary gets bold. She asks Woodrow to use his office to pull a few strings. Now, Woodrow is no fool. He knows the number one unspoken rule of politics. If there is an election coming up, your mistress gets whatever your mistress wants. Woodrow calls up an editor at the magazine Ladies Home Journal and gets Mary published. Her article is called Around the Table Afternoon Tea.
It's less than riveting, but sort of ironic because the tea is about to get scalding hot. Woodrow follows up that favor by sending Mary a check for the equivalent of almost 200,000 dollars today. And if that sounds like hush money, it should. Woodrow is paranoid to the core that Mary might leave the letters or spill the beans to the press. He even drafts up a statement to use in case of a PR crisis. Right after he does, chaos erupts.
But it's unrelated to Woodrow's personal life. In May 1915, a German torpedo sinks the RMS Lusitania killing 128 Americans. The country gets mad, protests break out, people call for action. So what does Woodrow do? Well, he starts dating again. No joke. Seven months after Ellen dies, Woodrow, start seeing Edith Bowling Galt and she looks remarkably like Ellen. He's definitely got a type. And that type is nurturers. He needs to be coddled so much so that he literally begs to be with her.
But Woodrow chooses this moment to learn from the past. He tells Edith about his bizarre relationship with Mary. So there are no future surprises. And Edith processes this information fine. But Edith and Woodrow's relationship still gets off to a bumpy start. Wilson's paranoia gets validated when the media does accuse him of having an illicit affair, but not with Mary. With Edith, Woodrow's seven month grieving period was suspiciously short, especially for the time one newspaper accuses Edith and Woodrow of conspiring to murder Ellen so that they could be together.
And things get even more insane when the Washington Post publishes an article reportedly saying that the president spent an evening entering Mrs. Galt. Now it's a typo, the author meant to say, entertaining Mrs. Galt. But the slip does illustrate where people's minds were.
Anyway, Woodrow mitigates the bad press by proposing to eat it in May 1915, he feels it will legitimize their relationship and a wedding will give the tabloids new fodder. But he doesn't tell his actual mistress he waits five months before writing marry a letter. He basically says, hey, Mary, heard you got divorced, heard you moved to New York. We were both single for a second. Oh, crazy. That's so weird, but. Oh, yeah.
By the way, I'm already engaged. Now, it turns out Woodrow's news isn't necessarily news to Mary. She found out when it was plastered all over the papers and her response letter is a little heartbreaking. She talks about how lonely she is, how only God and Woodrow truly knew the real Mary and she ends it with I shall not write you again this intimately. Woodrow basically shrugs it off. No harm, no foul. He's just happy. Mary didn't leak the letter so he could run his campaign without tripping over skeletons in 1916.
Woodrow's I kept America out of the war platform gets him re-elected. But as death tolls in Europe take up into the millions, American neutrality starts to feel like voyeurism. Still, Woodrow holds his ground. He stands before Congress on January 22nd, 1917, and reavows that America will keep its nose out of Europe's business. Then he has a swift, inexplicable change of heart. 11 weeks later, he returns to Congress and announces America will be going to war to make the world safe for democracy.
Now, there are plenty of external factors at play, but some experts have suggested Woodrow's abrupt 180 was sparked by something internal the lack of oxygen flowing to his brain. Woodrow was always prone to mood swings, but never like this before. All of a sudden, he's become this walking, talking, ideological paradox. The man who once preached against political demagogues starts grabbing power left and right. In times of war, people are usually OK with the government having a bit more control.
Removing some checks and balances allows them to work faster, theoretically in their efforts to protect citizens. Woodrow knows that's how people will feel, and he abuses it. American civil liberties, not any more. He considers himself a moral servant of God, and because of that he thinks he knows what's best for Americans. Woodrow passes legislation that essentially allows him to control the entire economy and imprison people for speaking poorly of war efforts. And he's not afraid to use them, especially if you're a political rival.
Now, many argue his heart is still in the right place at this point, and they're not entirely wrong. In January 1918, when he announces his fourteen point plan to end the Great War, he genuinely wants the bloodshed to end. The proposal includes Woodrow's most ambitious idea ever, the League of Nations, a board meeting for countries to have dialogues instead of wars. He also includes his peace without victory philosophy. The way Wilson sees it, peace is only possible if war ends without a winner.
Winners mean losers. Losers harbor resentment. Resentment turns to vengeance, which in turn leads to more war. And Woodrow wants to smash that cycle to pieces. So he boards a steamer and heads to France to save the world.
Woodrow sits down with the Prime Minister of France, George Clemenceau, to discuss his fourteen point plan. He says there can't be a loser. It's peace without victory or bust. But Clemenceau is like interesting seeing as you just got here. My people have been fighting for years and I think Germany should pay for their crimes. This back and forth keeps happening for months until April 3rd, 1919, Wilson gets violently sick, a 103 fever, vomiting, diarrhea, you name it.
He has a complete breakdown. He even convinces himself that French spies are watching him. When Wilson peels himself out of bed five days later, he's a shell of himself. The next time he meets with Clemenceau, he'd fold on every point he'd previously fought tooth and nail for. They walk away with the Treaty of Versailles. It includes the creation of Wilson's beloved League of Nations, but it punishes Germany, rips them apart and tosses them to the wind.
And at the end of the war, Germany very. Much becomes the loser, Wilson basically gave up his vision and members of his staff quit because of it. The end of World War One marked the beginning of the end of Woodrow. After all of his compromising, Woodrow brings the Treaty of Versailles back to the Senate and they reject it. They opt out of the League of Nations. At his wit's end, Woodrow travels the U.S. on a speaking tour 8000 miles in 22 days, trying to get grassroots support to prove to the Senate that Americans want the League of Nations.
It goes well until it really doesn't. In late September 1919, Woodrow's addressing a crowd in Colorado. Edith's right there by his side. And as usual, he's getting really into hearing himself talk. But after he finishes, he collapses. He's rushed back to Washington, but things immediately get worse.
One night, Woodrow asked Edith to help him to the bathroom. He can't do it alone. But even with her help, it takes a staggering amount of effort. His body spasms with every step. So Edith asks Woodrow to please just stay where he is for one second. She wants to call a doctor, but for reasons that will become clear, she chooses not to use the phone that's right there in the bedroom. Instead, she walks down the hall to one that is privately wired when she reaches the head of staff and operations at the White House, Ike Hoover.
Edith says, please get Dr. Grayson. The president is very sick before she even hangs up. Edith hears a thud and runs back to the bedroom, Woodrow's unconscious on the floor after his fourth stroke. Or as far as the public is concerned, his first. The chaos continues.
For the next few days, the president of the United States is laying in bed, half paralyzed, unable to form words and barely able to swallow. According to Ike Hoover, he might as well have been dead. Dr. Grayson, Edith and Ike basically make something of a blood pact to tell no one about the severity of Woodrow's situation. Orders around the White House are no details, no explanations. As Edith mentally prepares for her husband to die, Americans are told that their president is essentially tired and just taking a nap.
Luckily, by the end of the month, Woodrow starts to recover slowly when he regained his speech. Woodrow is punchy. He's whispering limericks about pelicans. So for at least a month, no government official could see the president. If you wanted to speak with him, you had to go through Edith first. Which brings us to what biographer A. Scott Berg calls the greatest conspiracy that had ever engulfed the White House. Some historians believe that after his debilitating stroke, Woodrow, handed by choice or by necessity, all executive power to his wife, which means Edith Wilson became the first female president of the United States of America.
Now, Edith never called herself president. In fact, she later emphatically denied that she had any power at all. She called their final years in office her stewardship. But the truth of the matter is, during her so-called stewardship, Edith turned into Woodrow's messenger secretary and official representative in almost every matter. She delivered information on White House letterhead without the president's signature. She held meetings with his secretary of the Treasury. Memos were written in her handwriting, supposedly because Woodrow couldn't write them himself.
At the very least, Edith curated the information that Woodrow received, which is power.
She hid the truth about Woodrow's health from the world and the truth about the world from Woodrow. And who can blame her? She loved him deeply and the truth might kill him.
By some accounts in his final years, wostill had a finger to on his most precious cargo, his mind. By others, he was a zombie unfit to lead a classroom, let alone a country whispers around Capitol Hill or that the president had gone crazy.
Either way, the halls of the White House echoed in his absence. He spent the rest of his days resting, watching movies and obsessing over the failure of the Treaty of Versailles. Together, the Wilsons finished a second term. But less than three years later, on February 3rd, 1924, Woodrow succumbed to his deteriorating health, but not before squeaking out his final word. Iida. Woodrow left the White House with a complicated legacy and future historians at a loss.
A supreme racist, a cheating, pompous contradiction. He's also consistently ranked as one of the best presidents to ever hold office. And like we heard, the truth is he may not have been president that whole time. Thanks for listening, I'll be back next week with another episode.
If you want to hear more episodes of very presidential, you can find them all for free on Spotify, very presidential was co-created by Max Cutler and Ashley Flowers and is a parcast, Studios' Original, starring Ashley Flowers. It's executive produced by Max Cutler, Sound Design by Carrie Murphy with production assistance by Ron Shapiro and Carly Madden. This episode of Very Presidential was written by Connor Simpson with writing assistants by Drew Cole. To hear more stories hosted by me, check out Crime Junkie and all audio Chuck Originals.