President Wilson Has a Stroke
While visiting in Pueblo, Colorado to speak in favor of ratifying the Versailles Treaty and admitting the United States into the League of Nations, on September 25, 1919 President (Thomas) Woodrow Wilson suffered a slight stroke. One week later, he would be devastated by a second, far more serious stroke that rendered him bedridden, paralyzed on his left side, completely blind in one eye and partially blind in the other. The 28th President of the United States was completely disabled.
Though the strokes themselves were not withheld from the public, a conspiracy was initiated regarding their effects. First lady Edith Wilson, along with the President's physicians and others within his inner circle, took it upon themselves to isolate the President from everyone for months in an effort to hide what would prove to be irreparable damage from the second stroke. The first lady also tended to many of her husband's routine duties, and is considered by some to have been the nation's de facto President during this time; in her 1939 autobiography, she would admit as much, referring to her involvement as a "stewardship" of the presidency.
Months passed with no sign of President Wilson - no photographs, no meetings with Congressional leaders or his Cabinet, no public or even private appearances. By early 1920 Wilson's championed cause - the Treaty of Versailles - was seemingly in danger of failing Senate ratification. While the first lady and the President's inner circle adamantly denied that Wilson was significantly infirmed, the mere fact that Wilson hadn't renewed his efforts for ratification alone were raising questions about the extent of his physical ailments. Reluctantly and slowly, the President's handlers began putting forth an impression that Wilson was gradually getting back to work. But as an attendee at an April 1920 Cabinet meeting wrote in his journal, that was not the impression that was made:
The President look old, worn, and haggard. It was enough to make one weep looking at him... One of his arms was useless. In repose, his face looked very much as usual, but when he tried to speak, there was marked evidences of his trouble. His jaw tended to drop on one side, or seemed to do so. His voice was very weak and strained... the President seemed at first to have some difficulty in fixing his mind on what we were discussing.
A Clarion Call To Address Presidential Disability Goes Unanswered
Had President Wilson's condition been known to the public, to Vice President Marshall, or to Congressional leadership, immediate pressure would have been applied, calling on Wilson to resign on account of his health. At minimum, it finally would have provided the catalyst necessary for Congress to take action on questions of presidential disability, perhaps installing Marshall as Acting President during Wilson's recovery. Fearing precisely that, the Vice President in particular was kept out of the loop. A century later however, there likely would be little thought given to not transferring power under the 25th Amendment under circumstances of disability similar to Wilson's.
Rather than Woodrow Wilson's legacy being the failure of the United States to join the League of Nations, Wilson's legacy could have been - should have been - a process by which a disabled President could step aside and allow his Vice President to act on his behalf, resuming office if and when his health had been restored. Unfortunately instead the clarion call to do so went unanswered.
The Man Who Should've Been Acting President
Vice President Thomas Riley Marshall was an interesting man who merits an addendum to this section. Serving as Governor of Indiana when he was nominated for Vice President at the 1912 Democratic National Convention, Marshall will likely be best known for his humor, particularly a quip he made while presiding over the Senate in 1914. Having to endure a stem winder of a speech by Senator Joseph Bristow in which he shared his thoughts on what the country needed, the Vice President reportedly mutter to one of his clerks, "What this country needs is a really good five cent cigar."
When President Wilson suffered his stroke, the first lady and others in his inner circle held great fear of Marshall, suspecting that if aware of the President's condition he would try to maneuver his way into the office himself. Having read biographies of Marshall as part of my research for Amendment25.com, I find this suspicion was probably unfounded: the Vice President was a loyal soldier of the Democratic Party and seemingly possessed no presidential ambitions of his own (evidenced in part by the fact that he didn't seek election in 1920). If anything, Marshall might have endeavored to help lend credence to the deception that the President was capable of doing his job. But as it was that chance couldn't be taken, and following Wilson's stroke the Vice President would see him but once more: on March 4, 1921, their final day in office.
Finally, here's a fact about Vice President Marshall that's completely unrelated to Woodrow's incapacity: he was the first Vice President of the United States to be targeted for assassination. On July 2, 1915 a German immigrant named Eric Muenter broke into the Senate Office Building and placed a time bomb outside the door to Marshall's door. The timer malfunctioned however, and the explosion occurred at a time when no one was in the vicinity. Fortunately no one was harmed. The Vice President would decline a security detail after the incident; a century later meanwhile, each Vice President has a distinct Secret Service protection detail, perhaps comprising as many as 50 agents in total.