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Woodrow Wilson As I Know Him
Chapter XLV - The San Francisco Convention
by Tumulty, 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 candidacy.

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 the Convention.

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.

[Illustration:
THE WHITE HOUSE
WASHINGTON

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 he asked.

George Creel is of the opinion that the statement should come from the White House.

Sincerely,
(signed) Tumulty

* * * * *

Dear Tumulty,

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,

The President.
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.

DEAR GOVERNOR:

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 in fairness.

Sincerely,
TUMULTY.
The President read my note and immediately authorized me to issue the following statement:
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 following statement:

"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 campaign.

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."

[Illustration:
THE WHITE HOUSE,
WASHINGTON.

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 President.

* * * * *

The White House,
Washington

(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. W. W.)
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 willy-nilly.

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.

With regards,
(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."

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