By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
The Triumph of Reaction
Progressives and the Election of 1920
V. Visions of a Third Term
Before Wilson's stroke in September 1919, and before the Versailles Treaty and the failure of the League became millstones around the Democrats' neck, political observers and the press both believed the president would run for a third term. If anything, it was thought that Wilson would likely coast to victory as a reward for successfully prosecuting the Great War and forging a League that America could be a part of, and his Fall 1919 whirlwind tour across the West assuredly seemed like the incipient stages of a third term campaign. Four days before Wilson's collapse, papers reported that Republicans and Democrats alike thought the president was rather transparently using the issue of the League to open his 1920 reelection bid.1
But, the stroke, coupled with the failure of the League in the Senate -- in no small part due to Wilson's increasing intractability on this issue -- quelled talk of a third term among party officials, and Democratic friends and colleagues began to request the president instead step aside. In March of 1920, Joseph Tumulty suggested to Mrs. Wilson that "a dignified statement of withdrawal [would] strengthen every move the President wishes to make during the remainder of his term," while on the Senate floor and in the newspapers other Democrats began to suggest that Wilson gamely make room for a new candidate.2
The president was unmoved. While Wilson did not directly say he was running for another term, he also refused to say he wasn't. In March 1920, the president's closest advisors and members of his Cabinet, among them Bernard Baruch, A. Mitchell Palmer, Josephus Daniels, Senator Carter Glass of Virginia, and Joe Tumulty, were gathered together and each given a card, on which Wilson asked them: "What part should the writer play in politics in the immediate future?" With the exception of Postmaster Albert Sidney Burleson, everyone thought the president should step aside, and to a man they believed Wilson should accept the League with the Lodge reservations. Unfortunately, nobody wanted to be the person to convey these decisions to the president himself.3
And so the dance continued into the spring and summer of 1920, with Wilson never explicitly announcing a run for a third term, but also never contradicting anyone who said he was in the hunt, and never choosing to endorse anyone else for the position. Instead, right up until the Democratic convention, Wilson continued meeting with members of the press for interviews that stressed the hale and hearty president's fitness for office. More often than not, these interviews also included cryptic statements such as the one offered to New York World reporter Louis Seibold ten days before the convention, in which Wilson confessed his desire to "make a personal call to the people directly. Perhaps that will come later on. I am eager that it shall." Said the World of this exchange: "The views set forth by the President were plainly designed to announce to the country he is in every way still fitted to be a leader of his party and Chief Executive." For TNR, Wilson's interview made "perfectly clear that there is to be no quiet substitution of a new management and new policies in the Democratic party, if he can prevent it." The Tribune was more concise: "Wilson May Seek Third Term."4
What Wilson seemed to be envisioning, in keeping with his lifelong desire to "inspire a great movement of opinion" and be the "political autobiography" of a generation, was that, if he just left the door open, he would be publicly acclaimed by the Democratic Party to run again and save the League from extinction. Should the convention deadlock, Wilson told his private physician, "there may be practically a universal demand for the selection of someone to lead them out of the wilderness." And if that happened, "[t]he members of the convention may feel that I am the logical one to lead - perhaps the only one to champion this cause. In such circumstances I would feel obliged to accept the nomination even if I thought it would cost me my life." For his part, Dr. Cary Grayson was not in accord with Wilson's desire for martyrdom. "He just must not be nominated," the doctor wrote. "I tell you that he is permanently ill, physically, is gradually weakening mentally, and can't recover. He couldn't possibly survive the campaign."5
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2. Ibid, 58-59.
3. Ibid, 60.
4. Ibid, 61. "The Week," The New Republic, June 30, 1920 (Vol. XXIII, No. 291), 136.
5. Pietrusza, 191, 199-200. Smith, 152-153.
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