‘Fine American Spirit’?

Let’s take a moment to remember the day Woodrow Wilson abandoned his presidential duties while staying in office.

Via Wikimedia Commons
President Wilson in June 1920 at the White House after his stroke, with his wife at his side. Via Wikimedia Commons

“It is a fine American spirit — fine alike of those with and those against his League of Nations — which feels and expresses the national sympathy for President Wilson returning to the White House because of his exhausted physical forces. It is a sound American sentiment which is grateful that he will not exact of his bodily strength a greater tax than it can safely bear.”

That is from the Sun’s editorial “Fine American Spirit,” issued on September 28, 1919. It comes to mind as a faltering President Biden insists he won’t quit. The 1919 editorial was issued after Wilson’s presidential choo-choo had returned him to the White House after he cut short his swing through the West in support of the League of Nations. It is generous toward Wilson, given that the Sun was dug in against the League of Nations, which failed in the Senate.

The editorial blathered on about how those who knew that Wilson “was losing — had lost — his fight” for the League of Nations “may well have doubted that he would ever give up, though he no longer hoped to win, though in truth he realized that he had lost.” Those “of his own intimate party” (his wife Edith, in particular) who”felt and knew that he had lost” must have feared that Wilson “would go on to the end, embittering his heart.”

Wilson had just thrown in the towel and retreated to the White House soon to suffer a class A stroke. “It is to the credit of Mr. Wilson,” we honked, “that with so many other vast national considerations in the balance he could forgo, for a long time or for a short time, his supreme purpose of fighting out this battle for the League of Nations, win or lose. It is a genuine cause for national rejoicing,” the Sun said, that “he did quit.”

Of all the editorials written in the ink of crocodile tears, the Sun’s solicitude in respect of Wilson’s stroke has got to be one of the classics. The man, after all, was prepared to sign away the very war powers put to parchment by the Framers of the Constitution and handed down to us under the signature of George Washington. Instead, paralyzed on his left side, he lay in his room, communicating with the world through his wife.

The republic survived. Which is something Mr. — and Dr. — Biden might study as they brush away calls for the 46th president to relinquish his office. For the rest of us, let’s not get too sentimental. President Biden is nowhere as out of it as Wilson was. Wilson’s wife covered her husband’s left side with a blanket so his occasional visitor couldn’t see his paralysis. We weren’t yet in the nuclear age, and no one pressed the point.

The New York Sun

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