Thursday, February 26, 2009

Who's in Charge Here?

Of course there was a lot of dissatisfaction against the Pres going, Mostly by people whom he did not take along,... I was in favor of his going because I thought it would give us a chance to find out who was Vice President, But it Dident,...
Will Rogers

The Cowboy Philosopher made a good point: who held down the fort at home during those six months when Wilson was away?

True, the President came back for a week to see if he could rally Congress behind him. That didn't really work out, and he returned to the Conference.

So who was running things? Well, first of all, those were the days before Presidential power was so enormous, before the job became kind of symbol of superhumanity. Even Wilson—as a positivist and Progessive, and frankly an outright admirer of executive power—usually finished his presidential work in three or four hours, at least in the years before the war. But someone had to be in charge, right?

The Vice-President? Well, there was a problem.

Wilson's Vice-President was Thomas Riley Marshall, an Indiana Democrat who really didn't like Wilson very much, and whom Wilson definitely didn't trust or care much for. Indeed, before Marshall, presidents usually used the V-P as a go-between with Senators. But Wilson skipped this step, surprising observers by meeting with Senators without reference to Marshall.

Marshall was indeed a man of little influence, but he thought of himself as something of a comic, a kind of homespun philosopher and jokester—perhaps a political Mark Twain or Will Rogers. Based on the following gags, we probably have to admit that he was no Will Rogers:

"Indiana is the mother of Vice Presidents, home of more second-class men than any other state."

Inscribed in a book Marshall gave to Wilson: "From Your Only Vice"

Yet the apparently irrepressible V-P also came up with a lasting one-liner: "What this country needs is a really good five-cent cigar."

In spite of this achievement by Marshall, Wilson made it abundantly clear that Marshall was to have no influence on any substantive issues. In fact, it seems that Wilson did not broach the question of interim leadership at the presidential level with his Vice-President in advance of his departure in any substantive way. Just after the Armistice, the Council on Foreign Relations held a meeting at which several experts gave opinions as to whether the seat of the U. S. Government could legally reside on foreign soil. The participants cited several statutes prohibiting this. Still, on November 28, 1918, the New York Times quoted Marshall as saying that he "unquestionably would assume the Presidency of the United States and exercise the duties of that office if a court having jurisdiction directed me to do so."

There was further trouble in advance of the Peace Commission's departure, much of it occasioned by the related issue of Wilson's refusal to add any Senators or any Republicans to the negotiating team. The Commission was strictly partisan. So William Howard Taft, who actually supported much of Wilson's peace plan, was not invited and hence could speak out with concern about the absence of the President.

Wilson clearly would never have wanted Marshall to step into some place-holding leadership role while Wilson was in Europe. But Wilson's increasingly prickly relations with many of his closest collaborators in the Cabinet also prevented the kind of satrap position that, say, FDR might have created. In the event, Wilson armed the Hotel Crillon in Paris with a huge switchboard and telegraph station. Cablegrams were passing back and forth constantly between Paris and Washington. The government just performed its tasks without direct intervention from the President.

An interesting idea!


  1. Could you please explain a bit what you mean by

    "the kind of satrap position that, say, FDR might have created."

  2. Sure. Wilson did some extra-official delegating, as the case of Colonel House shows. But FDR's much more extensive use of "special emissaries," friends on private missions, and the like suggest to me that had FDR left the country for six months (which of course he would not have done), I can imagine him setting up Averill Harriman or Harold Ickes or Henry Morgenthau or someone similar to take over as unofficial "president pro tem." Like the Persian emperors, I think he would have appointed a governing satrap to hold his place, but like the Persian emperors, he would no doubt have surrounded the satrap with other powerful rivals, just to keep things in perspective. And of course the satrap would not have been his V-P.


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