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Site last updated
26 June, 2013
Woodrow Wilson As I Know Him
Chapter XLVI - The Last Day
by Tumulty, Joseph P.


I was greatly concerned lest the President should be unable by reason of his physical condition to stand the strain of Inauguration Day. Indeed, members of his Cabinet and intimate friends like Grayson and myself had tried to persuade him not to take part, but he could not by any argument be drawn away from what he believed to be his duty--to join in the inauguration of his successor, President-elect Harding. The thought that the people of the country might misconstrue his attitude if he should remain away and his firm resolve to show every courtesy to his successor in office were the only considerations that led him to play his part to the end. When I arrived at the White House early on the morning of the 4th of March, the day of the inauguration, I found him in his study, smiling and gracious as ever. He acted like a boy who was soon to be out of school and free of the burdens that had for eight years weighed him down to the breaking point. He expressed to me the feeling of relief that he was experiencing now that his term of office was really at an end. I recalled to him the little talk we had had on the same day, four years before, upon the conclusion of the ceremonies incident to his own inauguration in 1917. At the time we were seated in the Executive office. Turning away from his desk and gazing out of the window which overlooked the beautiful White House lawn and gardens, he said: "Well, how I wish this were March 4, 1921. What a relief it will be to do what I please and to say what I please; but more than that, to write my own impressions of the things that have been going on under my own eyes. I have felt constantly a personal detachment from the Presidency. The one thing I resent when I am not performing the duties of the office is being reminded that I am President of the United States. I feel toward this office as a man feels toward a great function which in his working hours he is obliged to perform but which, out of working hours, he is glad to get away from and resume the quiet course of his own thought. I tell you, my friend, it will be great to be free again."

On this morning, March 4, 1921, he acted like a man who was happy now that his dearest wish was to be realized. As I looked at Woodrow Wilson, seated in his study that morning, in his cutaway coat, awaiting word of the arrival of President-elect Harding at the White House, to me he was every inch the President, quiet, dignified; ready to meet the duties of the trying day upon which he was now to enter, in his countenance a calm nobility. It was hard for me to realize as I beheld him, seated behind his desk in his study, that here was the head of the greatest nation in the world who in a few hours was to step back into the uneventful life of a private citizen.

A few minutes and he was notified that the President-elect was in the Blue Room awaiting his arrival. Alone, unaided, grasping his old blackthorn stick, the faithful companion of many months, his "third leg," as he playfully called it, slowly he made his way to the elevator and in a few seconds he was standing in the Blue Room meeting the President-elect and greeting him in the most gracious way. No evidence of the trial of pain he was undergoing in striving to play a modest part in the ceremonies was apparent either in his bearing or attitude, as he greeted the President- elect and the members of the Congressional Inaugural Committee. He was an ill man but a sportsman, determined to see the thing through to the end. President-elect Harding met him in the most kindly fashion, showing him the keenest consideration and courtesy.

And now the final trip to the Capitol from the White House. The ride to the Capitol was uneventful. From the physical appearance of the two men seated beside each other in the automobile, it was plain to the casual observer who was the out-going and who the in-coming President. In the right sat President Wilson, gray, haggard, broken. He interpreted the cheering from the crowds that lined the Avenue as belonging to the President-elect and looked straight ahead. It was Mr. Harding's day, not his. On the left, Warren Gamaliel Harding, the rising star of the Republic, healthy, vigorous, great-chested, showing every evidence in his tanned face of that fine, sturdy health so necessary a possession in order to grapple with the problems of his country. One, the man on the right, a battle-scarred veteran, a casualty of the war, now weary and anxious to lay down the reins of office; the other, agile, vigorous, hopeful, and full of enthusiasm for the tasks that confronted him. Upon the face of the one were written in indelible lines the scars and tragedies of war; on that of the other, the lines of confidence, hope, and readiness for the fray.

The Presidential party arrived at the Capitol. Woodrow Wilson took possession of the President's room. Modestly the President-elect took a seat in the rear of the room while President Wilson conferred with senators and representatives who came to talk with him about bills in which they were interested, bills upon which he must act before the old clock standing in a corner of the room should strike the hour of twelve, noon, marking the end of the official relationship of Woodrow Wilson with the affairs of the Government of the United States. It was about eleven- thirty. Senators and congressmen of both parties poured into the office to say good-bye to the man seated at the table, and then made their way over to congratulate the President-elect.

It was a few minutes before twelve o'clock. The weary man at the table was still the President, still the ruler of a great people, the possessor for a little while longer, just a little while longer, of more power than any king in Christendom.

Presently there appeared at the door a gray-haired man of imperious manner. Addressing the President in a sharp, dry tone of voice, he said: "Mr. President, we have come as a committee of the Senate to notify you that the Senate and House are about to adjourn and await your pleasure." The spokesman for the committee was Henry Cabot Lodge, the distinguished senator from Massachusetts, the implacable political foe of the man he was addressing.

It was an interesting study to watch the face and manner of Woodrow Wilson as he met the gaze of Senator Lodge who by his attacks had destroyed the great thing of which the President had dreamed, the thing for which he had fought and for which he was ready to lay down his life. It appeared for a second as if Woodrow Wilson was about to give full sway to the passionate resentment he felt toward the man who, he believed, had unfairly treated him throughout the famous Treaty fight. But quickly the shadow of resentment passed. A ghost of a smile flitted across his firm mouth, and steadying himself in his chair, he said in a low voice: "Senator Lodge, I have no further communication to make. I thank you. Good morning."

Senator Lodge and the committee withdrew from the room. I looked at the clock in the corner. A few minutes more and all the power which the weary man at the table possessed would fall from his shoulders. All left the room except the President, Mrs. Wilson, Admiral Grayson, and myself.

The old clock in the corner of the room began to toll the hour of twelve. Mechanically I counted, under my breath, the strokes: "One, two, three," on through "twelve," and the silent room echoed with the low vibration of the last stroke.

Woodrow Wilson was no longer President. By the votes of the American people he had been returned to the ranks of his fellow countrymen. A great warrior had passed from the field, a leading actor had made his exit. The dearest wish of his political enemies had at last been realized. The prayers of his devoted friends that he would live to see the eight years of his administration through, had been answered. His own bearing and attitude did not indicate that anything unusual had happened.

Quickly Woodrow Wilson, now the private citizen, turned to make his way to the elevator, leaning on his cane, the ferrule striking sharply on the stone pavement as he walked; but his spirit was indomitable. A few minutes before all interest had been centred upon him. Now but a few loyal friends remained behind. Interest was transferred to the scene being enacted a few feet away in the Senate Chamber, the induction into office of Vice- President Coolidge. By the time we reached the elevator, the brief ceremony in the Senate Chamber had ended, and the multitude outside were cheering Mr. Harding as he appeared at the east front of the Capitol to deliver his inaugural address. We heard the United States Marine Band playing "Hail to the Chief." For a few seconds I looked toward the reviewing stand. The new President, Warren G. Harding, was taking his place on the stand amid the din and roar of applause. He was the focus of all eyes, the pivot around which all interest turned. Not one of the thousands turned to look at the lonely figure laboriously climbing into the automobile. The words of Ibsen flashed into my mind:

The strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone.

THE END

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