Woodrow Wilson As I Know Him Chapter XLV - The San Francisco Convention byTumulty, Joseph P.
During the winter of 1919-1920 President Wilson was the target of vicious
assaults. Mrs. Wilson and Admiral Grayson with difficulty curbed his
eagerness to take a leading hand in the fight over the Peace Treaty in the
Senate, and to organize the Democratic party on a fighting basis. It was
not until after the Chicago Convention had nominated Mr. Harding and
enunciated a platform repudiating the solemn obligations of the United
States to the rest of the world that the President broke his silence of
many months. Because he had something he wanted to say to the country he
asked me to send for Louis Seibold, a trusted friend and an experienced
reporter, then connected with the New York World. When Mr. Seibold
arrived in Washington on the Tuesday following Mr. Harding's nomination,
the President talked unreservedly and at length with him, discussed the
Republican Convention, characterized its platform as "the apotheosis of
reaction," and declared that "it should have quoted Bismarck and Bernhardi
rather than Washington and Lincoln." During the two days of Mr. Seibold's
visit to the White House he had abundant opportunity to observe the
President's condition of health which had been cruelly misrepresented by
hostile newspapers. Mr. Seibold found him much more vigorous physically
than the public had been given to understand and mentally as alert and
aggressive as he had been before his illness. Mr. Seibold's article, which
by the way was regarded as a journalistic classic and for which Columbia
University awarded the author the Pulitzer prize for the best example of
newspaper reporting of the year, exposed the absurd rumours about the
President's condition and furnished complete evidence of his determination
to fight for the principles to establish which he had struggled so
valiantly and sacrificed so much.
As the days of the San Francisco Convention approached those of us who
were intimately associated with the President at the White House were
warned by him that in the Convention fight soon to take place we must play
no favourites; that the Convention must be, so far as the White House was
concerned, a free field and no favour, and that our attitude of "hands
off" and strict neutrality must be maintained. Some weeks before the
Convention met the President conferred with me regarding the nominations,
and admonished me that the White House must keep hands off, saying that it
had always been charged in the past that every administration sought to
use its influence in the organization of the party to throw the nomination
this way or that. Speaking to me of the matter, he said, "We must make it
clear to everyone who consults us that our attitude is to be impartial in
fact as well as in spirit. Other Presidents have sought to influence the
naming of their successors. Their efforts have frequently brought about
scandals and factional disputes that have split the party. This must not
happen with us. We must not by any act seek to give the impression that we
favour this or that man."
This attitude was in no way an evidence of the President's indifference to
the nominee of the Convention, or to what might happen at San Francisco.
He was passionately anxious that his party's standard bearer should win at
the election if for no other reason than to see his own policies continued
and the League of Nations vindicated.
There was another and personal reason why he insisted that no White House
interference should be brought into play for any particular nominee. His
son-in-law, Mr. William G. McAdoo, was highly thought of in connection
with the nomination, and therefore the President felt that he must be more
than ordinarily strict in insisting that we keep hands off, for anything
that savoured of nepotism was distasteful to him and, therefore, he
"leaned backward" in his efforts to maintain a neutral position in the
Presidential contest and to take no part directly or indirectly that might
seem to give aid and comfort to the friends of his son-in-law. While Mr.
McAdoo's political enemies were busily engaged in opposing him on the
ground of his relationship to the President, as a matter of fact, the
President was making every effort to disassociate himself and his
administration from the talk that was spreading in favour of McAdoo's
candidacy. While every effort was being made by Mr. McAdoo's enemies to
give the impression that the Federal machine was being used to advance his
candidacy, the President was engaged wholly in ignoring Mr. McAdoo's
Every family visit which Mr. McAdoo and his wife, the President's
daughter, paid the White House, was distorted in the newspaper reports
carried to the country into long and serious conferences between the
President and his son-in-law with reference to Mr. McAdoo's candidacy. I
know from my own knowledge that the matter of the nomination was never
discussed between the President and Mr. McAdoo. And Mr. McAdoo's real
friends knew this and were greatly irritated at what they thought was the
gross indifference on the part of the President to the political fortunes
of his own son-in-law. So meticulously careful was the President that no
one should be of the opinion that he was attempting to influence things in
Mr. McAdoo's behalf, that there was never a discussion even between the
President and myself regarding Mr. McAdoo's candidacy, although we had
canvassed the availability of other Democratic candidates, as well as the
availability of the Republican candidates.
I had often been asked what the President's attitude would be toward Mr.
McAdoo's candidacy were he free to take part in the campaign. My only
answer to these inquiries was that the President had a deep affection and
an admiration for Mr. McAdoo as a great executive that grew stronger with
each day's contact with him. He felt that Mr. McAdoo's sympathies, like
his own, were on the side of the average man; and that Mr. McAdoo was a
man with a high sense of public service.
And while the President kept silent with reference to Mr. McAdoo, the
basis of his attitude was his conviction that to use his influence to
advance the cause of his son-in-law was, in his opinion, an improper use
of a public trust.
That he was strictly impartial in the matter of Presidential candidates
was shown when Mr. Palmer, the Attorney General, requested me to convey a
message to the President with reference to his [Palmer's] candidacy for
the nomination, saying that he would be a candidate and would so announce
it publicly if the President had no objection; or that he would resign
from the Cabinet if the announcement would embarrass the President in any
way, and that he would support any man the President saw fit to approve
for this great office.
I conveyed this message to the President and he requested me to notify Mr.
Palmer that he was free to do as he pleased, that he had no personal
choice and that the Convention must be left entirely free to act as it
thought proper and right and that he would gladly support the nominee of
Mr. Homer S. Cummmgs, the permanent chairman of the Convention, Senator
Glass of Virginia, and Mr. Colby, Secretary of State, called upon the
President at the White House previous to taking the train for San
Francisco to inquire if the President had any message for the Convention
or suggestion in the matter of candidates or platforms. He informed them
that he had no message to convey or suggestions to offer.
Thus, to the end, he maintained this attitude of neutrality. He never
varied from this position from the opening of the Convention to its
conclusion. There was no direct wire between the White House and the San
Francisco Convention, although there were frequent long-distance telephone
calls from Colby, Cummings, and others to me; never once did the President
talk to any one at the Convention. At each critical stage of the
Convention messages would come from someone, urging the President to say
something, or send some message that would break the deadlock, but no
reply was forthcoming. He remained silent.
There came a time when it looked as if things at the Convention had
reached an impasse and that only the strong hand of the President could
break the deadlock.
I was informed by long-distance telephone that the slightest intimation
from the President would be all that was necessary to break the deadlock
and that the Convention would nominate any one he designated.
THE WHITE HOUSE
26 September 1920.
My dear Governor:
I think I have found a suitable way to begin our attack if you care to
take part in this campaign. The whole country is filled with the
poison spread by Lodge and his group and it has to do principally with
the attacks made upon you for failing to consult anyone about possible
changes in the Treaty and your reluctance toward suggesting to your
associates on the other side changes of any kind.
George Creel and I have examined the cables that passed between you
and Mr. Taft and we have prepared a statement which is attached to
this letter. This statement, with the Taft cables will be a knockout
(I know that Mr. Taft is already preparing a book on the Treaty which
will carry these cables) and will clear the air and show how
contemptible our enemies have been in circulating stories. We have
carefully gone over the Covenant and find that nearly every change
suggested by Mr. Taft was made and in come cases you went further than
George Creel is of the opinion that the statement should come from the
* * * * *
I have read your letter of September twenty-sixth with a sincere
effort to keep an open mind about the suggestions you make, but I must
say that it has not changed my mind at all. No answers to Harding of
any kind will proceed from the White House with my consent.
It pleases me very much that you and Creel are in collaboration on
material out of which smashing answers can be made, and I beg that you
will press those materials on the attention of the Speakers' Bureau of
the National Committee. It is their clear duty to supply those
materials in turn to the speakers of the campaign. If they will not, I
am sorry to say I know of no other course that we can pursue,
C. L. S.
An inside view of the Cox campaign]
I conveyed this information to the President. He shook his head. This told
me that he would not act upon my suggestion and would in no way interfere
with the Convention. To the end he steered clear of playing the part of
dictator in the matter of the nomination. That he took advantage of every
occasion to show that he was playing an impartial hand is shown by the
documents which follow. The Associated Press had carried a story to the
effect that Senator Glass had notified certain delegates that Governor Cox
was persona non grata to the President. When Governor Cox's friends got me
on the long-distance telephone and asked me if there was any foundation
for such a story and after Governor Cox himself had talked with me over
the 'phone from Columbus, I addressed the following note to the President:
4 July, 1920.
Simply for your information:
Governor Cox just telephoned me from Columbus. He felt greatly
aggrieved at the statement which it is claimed Glass gave out last
night, and which he says prevented his nomination. He says that Glass
made the statement that the President had said that "Governor Cox
would not be acceptable to the Administration."
He says he has been a loyal supporter of the Administration and has
asked no favours of it. He also says that Mr. Bryan has been attacking
him in the most relentless way and that Mr. Bryan's antagonism toward
him became particularly aggravated since the Jackson Day dinner, when
the Governor went out of his way to disagree with Mr. Bryan in the
matter of the Lodge reservations.
He thinks, whether he himself is nominated or not, this action of
Glass's has hurt the Democratic chances in Ohio. He says he does not
ask for any statement from the Administration, but he would leave it
to the President's sense of justice whether or not he has been treated
The President read my note and immediately authorized me to issue the
The White House, Washington,
4 July, 1920.
When a report was brought to Secretary Tumulty's attention of rumours
being circulated in San Francisco that the President had expressed an
opinion with reference to a particular candidate, he made the
"This is news to me. I had discussed all phases of this convention
with the President and had been in intimate touch with him during its
continuance, and I am positive that he has not expressed an opinion to
any one with reference to a particular candidate for the Presidency.
It has always been his policy to refrain from taking any stand that
might be construed as dictation."
The proceedings of the Convention finally resulted in the nomination of
Governor Cox. The President expressed his great pleasure at the nomination
for Governor Cox had long been a devoted friend and admirer of his, and he
was certain that he would not desert him on the issue so close to his
heart--the League of Nations.
When Governor Cox visited the White House and conferred with the
President, the Governor assured the President that he intended to stand by
him. The President showed deep emotion and expressed his appreciation to
Governor Cox. Governor Cox afterward told me that no experience of his
life had ever touched him so deeply as that through which he had just
passed at the White House. He spoke of the modesty of the President, his
simplicity and the great spiritual purpose that lay back of his advocacy
of the League of Nations. Turning to me, he said, "No man could talk to
President Wilson about the League of Nations and not become a crusader in
its behalf." Governor Cox may have entered the White House that day as a
politician. He left it as a crusader, ready to fight for the cause.
As the campaign progressed we attempted to induce the President to issue
weekly statements from the White House, but after long consideration he
concluded that in view of the Republican strategy of trying to make him
personally, instead of Governor Cox and the League of Nations, the issue,
it would be better tactics for him to remain silent. He broke his silence
only once, a week before the election, in a message to the people
insisting upon the League of Nations as the paramount issue of the
It was really touching when one conferred with him to find him so hopeful
of the result. Time and time again he would turn to me and say, "I do not
care what Republican propaganda may seek to do. I am sure that the hearts
of the people are right on this great issue and that we can confidently
look forward to triumph."
I did not share his enthusiasm, and yet I did not feel like sending
reports to him that were in the least touched with pessimism because of
the effect they might have upon his feelings.
Then came the news of Governor Cox's defeat and with it the news of the
defeat of the solemn referendum on the League of Nations.
The loneliest place in the country on election night is the White House
Office, especially when the tide of opinion throughout the country is
running strongly against you. I have noticed the difference in the
atmosphere of the place and in the crowds that come to congratulate and to
rejoice when you are winning and the few loyal ones that remain with you
throughout the night of defeat. It takes a stout heart to withstand the
atmosphere of the White House on election night.
The first reports from the country were overwhelming, and there was no
spot in the country where we could look for hope and consolation. In the
early hours of the evening I sent whatever few optimistic reports I could
get to the President, so that at least he would not feel the full weight
of the blow on election night. His intimate friends had told me that they
feared the effect of defeat upon his health; but these fears were
groundless and never disturbed me in the least, for I had been with him in
many a fight and I was sure that while he would feel the defeat deeply and
that it would go to his heart, its effect would only be temporary.
My feeling in this regard was justified for in my talk with him the day
after the election no bitterness was evident. He said, "They have
disgraced us in the eyes of the world. The people of America have
repudiated a fruitful leadership for a barren independence. Of course, I
am disappointed by the results of the election for I felt sure that a
great programme that sought to bring peace to the world would arouse
American idealism, and that the Nation's support would be given to it. It
is a difficult thing, however, to lead a nation so variously constituted
as ours quickly to accept a programme such as the League of Nations. The
enemies of this enterprise cleverly aroused every racial passion and
prejudice, and by poisonous propaganda made it appear that the League of
Nations was a great Juggernaut which was intended to crush and destroy
instead of saving and bringing peace to the world. The people will have to
learn now by bitter experience just what they have lost. There will, of
course, be a depression in business for the isolation which America covets
will mean a loss of prestige which always in the end means a loss of
business. The people will soon witness the tragedy of disappointment and
then they will turn upon those who made that disappointment possible."
THE WHITE HOUSE,
20 October 1920.
My Dear Governor:
Of course nothing will be done in the Root matter, according to your
suggestion to me of this morning; but I feel it my duty to advise you
that nearly all the reports from the men whose judgment and opinion
are usually good are to the effect that unless you will intervene and
take a more active interest in the campaign, the Administration will
be repudiated at the election.
There is a slight drift towards Cox, but unless you take advantage of
it and speed it up, there is very little hope.
* * * * *
The White House,
(Manuscript: Of course I will help. I was under the impression that I
was helping. But I will do it at my own time and in my own way.
Further light on the Cox campaign.]
When I intimated to him that the Cox defeat might in the long run prove a
blessing, he rebuked me at once by saying: "I am not thinking of the
partisan side of this thing. It is the country and its future that I am
thinking about. We had a chance to gain the leadership of the world. We
have lost it, and soon we will be witnessing the tragedy of it all."
After this statement to me with reference to the result of the election,
he read to me a letter from his old friend, John Sharp Williams, United
States senator from Mississippi, a letter which did much to bolster and
hearten him on this, one of the most trying days of his life in the White
House. The letter follows:
DEAR MR. PRESIDENT:
God didn't create the world in one act. I never expected that we would
win in the United States the first battle in the campaign for a league
of nations to keep the peace of the world. Our people were too "set"
by our past history and by the apparent voice of the Fathers in an
opposite course, a course of isolation. This course was hitherto the
best for accomplishing the very purpose we must now accomplish by a
seemingly contrary course. We must now begin the war in earnest. We
will win it. Never fear, the stars in their courses are fighting with
us. The League is on its feet, learning to walk, Senate coteries
As for the vials of envy and hatred which have been emptied on your
head by all the un-American things, aided by demagogues who wanted
their votes and got them, abetted by yellow journals, etc., these
lines of Byron can console you:
"There were two cats in Kilkenny
They fit and fit until of cats there weren't any."
This is almost a prophecy of what will happen now between Borah,
Johnson & Co. and Root, Taft & Co., with poor Lodge mewing "peace"
when there is no peace--except a larger peace outside their horizon.
They have been kept united by hatred of you, by certain foreign
encouragements, and by fear of the Democratic party. With the
necessity to act, to do something, the smouldering fire of differences
will break forth into flame. Conserve your health. Cultivate a cynical
patience. Give them all the rope you can. Now and then when they
make too big fools of themselves, throw in a keynote veto--not often--
never when you can give them the benefit of the doubt and with it
responsibility. They have neither the coherence nor the brains to
handle the situation. Events will work their further confusion, events
in Europe. God still reigns. The people can learn, though not quickly.
(Signed) JOHN SHARP WILLIAMS.
One would think that after the election the President would show a
slackening of interest in the affairs of the nation; that having been
repudiated by a solemn referendum, he would grow indifferent and listless
to the administrative affairs that came to his desk. On the contrary, so
far as his interest in affairs was concerned, one coming in contact with
him from day to day after the election until the very night of March 3rd
would get the impression that nothing unusual had happened and that his
term of office was to run on indefinitely.
One of the things to which he paid particular attention at this time was
the matter of the pardon of Eugene V. Debs. The day that the
recommendation for pardon arrived at the White House, he looked it over
and examined it carefully, and said: "I will never consent to the pardon
of this man. I know that in certain quarters of the country there is a
popular demand for the pardon of Debs, but it shall never be accomplished
with my consent. Were I to consent to it, I should never be able to look
into the faces of the mothers of this country who sent their boys to the
other side. While the flower of American youth was pouring out its blood
to vindicate the cause of civilization, this man, Debs, stood behind the
lines, sniping, attacking, and denouncing them. Before the war he had a
perfect right to exercise his freedom of speech and to express his own
opinion, but once the Congress of the United States declared war, silence
on his part would have been the proper course to pursue. I know there will
be a great deal of denunciation of me for refusing this pardon. They will
say I am cold-blooded and indifferent, but it will make no impression on
me. This man was a traitor to his country and he will never be pardoned
during my administration."