The President and His Right Hemisphere

posted in: Edith and Woodrow | 0

As it happened, I was driving out of the parking lot, on my way home after having stocked up on groceries. The special guest, Iain McGilchrist, on the podcast Hidden Brain, coming through the auxiliary cord from my iPhone to my car’s speakers, made a lengthy remark that caused me sit up. Describing the effects of a right-hemisphere stroke, the psychiatrist explained that the patient would lose a sense of the big picture.

“There’d be an emphasis on the details, instead. There would be a great emphasis on predictability, organizability, anonymity, categorization, loss of the unique and an ability to break things down into parts but not really see what the whole is like. There’d be a need for total control because the left hemisphere is somewhat paranoid. After right hemisphere damage, people often develop a paranoia, and that’s because one can’t understand quite what’s going on and one needs, therefore, to control it. Anger would become the key note in public discourse. Everything would become black and white.”


Woodrow Wilson!

In my reading life, I had been following the surprising story of the Wilson presidency in Edith and Woodrow, by Phyllis Lee Levin, and Madam President, by William Hazelgrove. Wilson lost his wife and confidante of twenty-nine years just days after the outbreak of what would become the First World War. He met, courted, and married a woman sixteen years his junior during the heart of the conflict. And, following an illness whose true nature was kept secret from the public, was unable to fulfill his duties as president. His wife, Edith, with help from his physician, Dr. Cary Grayson, and his personal secretary, Joe Tumulty, kept the administration (such as it was) operational.

McGilchrist’s descriptors–paranoid, the need for control, anger, black-and-white view of the world–made me think automatically of the post-stroke Wilson. I returned to the two books and located the moment after Edith found him sprawled on the bathroom floor, when Grayson, declared, “My God, the President is paralyzed!” (The p-word was never again uttered, or at least recorded, by the conspiring triumvirate.) Yes, the left side of his body that was immobilized: the damage was in his right hemisphere. Wilson wasn’t merely a ham-fisted politician in his fight for the League. He was more than a sick man, struggling to manage weighty affairs of the world. He was mentally impaired in a way that affected the course of history.

Wilson could be a prickly man, both self-righteous and self-absorbed. In Paris in early 1919, Edith Wharton was astonished at Wilson’s tactlessness toward the French. He never visited the bloodiest battlefields (or  any at all), never praised the French for (or even acknowledged) the strength of their courage, waging war for four years on home soil.  Queen Marie of Romania spared no words in her assessment. Wilson, she said, was “very convinced of always being right, …certain that he will always have the last word, always intrenched in his superior detached attitude.”

In early 1919, though, Wilson was already a sick man. Levin shows how he probably suffered a small stroke on or about April 28. An attending physician at the time, Dr. Malford Thewlis, wrote retrospectively that the illness “made of him a changeling with a very different personality and markedly less ability.”

Apparently, Wilson had been able, earlier, to appreciate nuance, accommodate difference, contemplate compromise. In an 1890 speech, he declared, “Uncompromising thought is the luxury of the closeted recluse.”  In 1908, he explained that, in a divided government, a president did well to seek “veritable counsel and real accommodation of views instead of a final challenge and contest.”

Alas, such words were meaningless to the President in 1919. Wilson became a “closeted recluse,” literally as well as figuratively. And he chose “a final challenge and contest” rather than accommodation and compromise. The League of Nations may have well-intentioned, but Henry Cabot Lodge had good reason to argue against Article X, which pledged every signatory, including the United States, to come to another member’s aid when attacked. Lodge thought Article X unworkable at best, downright dangerous at worst. But he was willing to sign the treaty “with reservations.” Wilson was not.

He told Edith, when she urged him to soften his stance, that it was “better a thousand times to go down fighting than to dip your colors to dishonorable compromise .” The Senate failed to ratify the treaty, but Wilson was strangely energized. “All the more reason,” he declared, “I must get well and try to bring this country to a sense of its great opportunity and greater responsibility.” These are the words of a man unhinged, not a president with the faculties to navigate treacherous political waters.

The Treaty and the League went up for a second vote in early 1920. Rather than bend, Wilson hunkered down. Democratic Senators stood ready to support the amended treaty, but Wilson would have none of it. “I will not play for position,” he told one advisor. “This is not a time for tactics. It is a time to stand square. I can stand defeat. I cannot stand retreat from conscientious duty.” In a written public statement before the final vote, Wilson’s words torpedoed any chance of a compromise: “Any reservation seeking to deprive the League of Nations of the force of Article X cuts at the heart of the covenant itself. …Either we should enter the league fearlessly, accepting the responsibility and in the role of leader,…or we should retire as gracefully as possible….”

When ratification failed, Levin documents Wilson contemplating the most egregious of extra-Constitutional measures. He drafted a letter challenging the fifty-three Senators who had voted for the Lodge resolutions to resign their seats immediately and seek reelection based solely on their treaty vote. It is no wonder that contemporaries remarked on his erratic and pugnacious behavior.  But Wilson’s ill-treated secretary of state, Robert Lansing, summed it up best: “Wilson’s intransigence in all matters [by 1920] became pervasive.”

And all because of a blood-starved right hemisphere of the brain. (At least, largely–even mostly–due to the brain-damage.) History assuredly would have been different had the United States joined the fledgling League of Nations, even with the force of Article X neutered. The counterfactuals abound.

Yet the invalided Wilson could not have exerted his intransigence without help. Without a close circle of conspirators keeping the true nature and degree of his illness from the country at-large, Wilson would have been deemed unfit for office.

More on how his wife took control of the presidency later in the month.


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