President Woodrow Wilson, on a speaking tour designed to drum up support for the League of Nations, collapsed in Pueblo, Colorado, on this date in 1919 and a week later suffered a massive stroke.
He was totally paralyzed on the left side and blind in his left eye. He was bedridden for weeks and for several months after that he was confined to a wheelchair. Eventually he was able to walk with a cane.
All of this took place during the final 15 months of his second term, while the country was suffering an economic collapse after the wartime boom and real estate bubble. It’s estimated that 4 million soldiers were demobilized and sent home with few benefits and very little money, most to be unemployed. There were strikes in the steel, coal and meatpacking industries and race riots in major cities. American soldiers had been sent to Russia to intervene in the revolution and American troops were occupying Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic. Details of the Balfour Declaration were being worked out.
Unfortunately, the President of the United States was in seclusion for much of the time. He was kept away from his Vice-President, his Cabinet and visitors to the White House. His doctor and his wife were his only regular contacts.
No elected member of the government was ever designated to take responsibility for running things.
His wife, Edith Bolling Wilson, became what the press called ‘the Secret President.’ In her memoirs, she defended herself, saying “I studied every paper sent from the different Secretaries or Senators and tried to digest and present in tabloid form the things that, despite my vigilance, had to go to the President. I, myself, never made a single decision regarding the disposition of public affairs. The only decision that was mine was what was important and what was not, and the very important decision of when to present matters to my husband.”
Deciding what was important did not seem to Edith Wilson an arrogation of powers, but it finally occurred to Congress that it just might be and in 1965 the Twenty-fifth Amendment was passed. It spells out in detail how to determine if and when a president is incapacitated and what to do in the event.
Curiously, the determination of presidential disability can be a bit convoluted. Disability is declared if the Vice President and a majority of cabinet officers inform the Congress that it is so. But if the President informs the Congress in writing that he is indeed able, his powers are reinstated. If the Vice President and Cabinet disagree they have four days to tell Congress that. Then, the Congress must deliberate and decide who should be in charge.
Fortunately, this part of the amendment has never been invoked.