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Site last updated
26 June, 2013
Woodrow Wilson As I Know Him
Preface
by Tumulty, Joseph P.


Woodrow Wilson prefers not to be written about. His enemies may, and of course will, say what they please, but he would like to have his friends hold their peace. He seems to think and feel that if he himself can keep silent while his foes are talking, his friends should be equally stoical. He made this plain in October, 1920, when he learned that I had slipped away from my office at the White House one night shortly before the election and made a speech about him in a little Maryland town, Bethesda. He did not read the speech, I am sure he has never read it, but the fact that I had made any sort of speech about him, displeased him. That was one of the few times in my long association with him that I found him distinctly cold. He said nothing, but his silence was vocal.

I suspect this book will share the fate of the Bethesda speech, will not be read by Mr. Wilson. If this seems strange to those who do not know him personally, I can only say that "Woodrow Wilson is made that way." He cannot dramatize himself and shrinks from attempts of others to dramatize him. "I will not write about myself," is his invariable retort to friends who urge him to publish his own story of the Paris Peace Conference. He craves the silence from others which he imposes upon himself. He is quite willing to leave the assessment and interpretation of himself to time and posterity. Knowing all this I have not consulted him about this book. Yet I have felt that the book should be written, because I am anxious that his contemporaries should know him as I have known him, not only as an individual but also as the advocate of a set of great ideas and as the leader of great movements. If I can picture him, even imperfectly, as I have found him to be, both in himself and in his relationship to important events, I must believe that the portrait will correct some curious misapprehensions about him.

For instance, there is a prevalent idea, an innocently ignorant opinion in some quarters, an all too sedulously cultivated report in other quarters, that he has been uniformly headstrong, impatient of advice, his mind hermetically closed to counsel from others. This book will expose the error of that opinion; will show how, in his own words, his mind was "open and to let," how he welcomed suggestions and criticism. Indeed I fear that unless the reader ponders carefully what I have written he may glean the opposite idea, that sometimes the President had to be prodded to action, and that I represent myself as the chief prodder.

The superficial reader may find countenance lent to this latter view in the many notes of information and advice which I addressed to the President and in the record of his subsequent actions which were more or less in accord with the counsel contained in some of these notes. If the reader deduces from this the conclusion that I was the instigator of some of the President's important policies, he will misinterpret the facts and the President's character and mental processes; if he concludes that I am trying to represent myself as the instigator he will misunderstand my motives in publishing these notes.

These motives are: first, to tell the story of my association with Mr. Wilson, and part of the record is contained in these notes; secondly, to show what liberty he allowed me to suggest and criticize; how, so far from being offended, he welcomed counsel. Having this privilege I exercised it. I conceived it as part of my duty as his secretary and friend to report to him my own interpretations of facts and public opinion as I gathered these from newspapers and conversations, and sometimes to suggest modes of action. These notes were memoranda for my chief's consideration.

The reader will see how frankly critical some of these notes are. The mere fact that the President permitted me to continue to write to him in a vein of candour that was frequently brusque and blunt, is the conclusive answer to the charge that he resented criticism.

Contrary to the misrepresentations, he had from time to time many advisers. In most instances, I do not possess written reports of what others said orally and in writing, and therefore in this record, which is essentially concerned with my own official and personal relations with him, I may seem to represent myself as a preponderating influence. This is neither the fact nor my intention. The public acts of Mr. Wilson were frequently mosaics, made up of his own ideas and those of others. My written notes were merely stones offered for the mosaic. Sometimes the stones were rejected, sometimes accepted and shaped by the master builder into the pattern.

It was a habit of Mr. Wilson's to meditate before taking action, to listen to advice without comment, frequently without indicating whether or not the idea broached by others had already occurred to him. We who knew him best knew that often the idea had occurred to him and had been thought out more lucidly than any adviser could state it. But he would test his own views by the touchstone of other minds' reactions to the situations and problems which he was facing and would get the "slant" of other minds.

He was always ahead of us all in his thinking. An admirer once said: "You could shut him up in an hermetically sealed room and trust him to reach the right decision," but as a matter of fact he did not work that way. He sought counsel and considered it and acted on it or dismissed it according to his best judgment, for the responsibility for the final action was his, and he was boldly prepared to accept that responsibility and conscientiously careful not to abuse it by acting rashly. While he would on occasion make momentous decisions quickly and decisively, the habitual character of his mind was deliberative. He wanted all the facts and so far as possible the contingencies. Younger men like myself could counsel immediate and drastic action, but even while we were advising we knew that he would, without haste and without waste, calmly calculate his course. What, coming from us, were merely words, would, coming from him, constitute acts and a nation's destiny. He regarded himself as the "trustee of the people," who should not act until he was sure he was right and should then act with the decision and finality of fate itself.

Of another misapprehension, namely, that Mr. Wilson lacks human warmth, I shall let the book speak without much prefatory comment. I have done my work ill indeed if there does not emerge from the pages a human-hearted man, a man whose passion it was to serve mankind. In his daily intercourse with individuals he showed uniform consideration, at times deep tenderness, though he did not have in his possession the little bag of tricks which some politicians use so effectively: he did not clap men on their backs, call them by their first names, and profess to each individual he met that of all the men in the world this was the man whom he most yearned to see. Perhaps he was too sincere for that; perhaps by nature too reserved; but I am convinced that he who reads this book will feel that he has met a man whose public career was governed not merely by a great brain, but also by a great heart. I did not invent this character. I observed him for eleven years.

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