Who Are These People?

By Ferrell, Robert H. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Who Are These People?


Ferrell, Robert H., Presidential Studies Quarterly


Ever since the presidency of Richard M. Nixon, scholars have been in a quandary over how much they know about presidents. Nixon, we now have to say, was unstable in personality. The signs appeared well before discovery of the tapes, the latter an almost horrifying example of what the presidency could come to. Nor was the presidency of William J. Clinton reassuring for those of us who voted twice for him and found ourselves deceived. We begin to think that public figures, more than private, are intensely difficult to know.

Why we want to know what moves them personally is of course self-evident, for the private sides of such figures, the cores of their being, often govern what they do publicly.

In my own studies of American presidents, books on the presidents from Woodrow Wilson through Dwight D. Eisenhower, I have had both successes and failures attempting to estimate their personalities. My estimate of Wilson is, quite frankly, based on experience with academic people, of which group Wilson was one. He was preeminently an academic, theory tending to dominate experience. His first book, which made his academic career and took him from Bryn Mawr and Connecticut Wesleyan back to the Princeton he had loved as an undergraduate, was a truly academic production. It was Congressional Government (1886), his dissertation at Johns Hopkins about how ever since the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, the trinity of Montesquieu, the three-part organization of government under the Constitution, had been dominated by Congress. He proclaimed the fact, and it is of interest that when the academic became the politician and rose to the presidency in two years, he had this notion in mind and determined that he would not be, like his predecessors, under the yoke of Congress. This was an academic conclusion. He wrote the book in Baltimore and never went down to Washington to take a look.

One could contend that Wilson's dominance of Congress at the beginning and then gradually his loss of control, until the debacle with the Senate over the Treaty of Versailles, was an academic approach. This theory of what lay at the core of his being seems to work. One might add that his belief that in the beginning was the word, that oratory could take his fellow citizens to the heights, from which they might look down and see the small, simple world, accords with his academic proclivities. Words were deeds; they could arrange actions.

To understand the presidency, we attempt our notions, our arching points, and I claim without hesitation that Wilson was an academic.

But more reliable in the search for the springs of action, and what all of us hope to find and perhaps in most cases cannot, is some outside, observing individual's thoughts. In the instance of Wilson, the closest one can come is the diary of Colonel Edward M. House, who considered himself a sort of amateur psychologist and wrote carefully about the man he sought to serve. House, however, was eventually baffled by his subject and took refuge in belief that Wilson had been charmed and then dominated by his second wife, the widow of a Washington jeweler, Edith Bolling Galt, whom the president married after the death of his first wife, the former Ellen Axson. House is no sure guide to Wilson, for he only took that president's measure for a few years and then skewed his judgment with his dislike, verging upon hatred, for Edith Wilson. (1)

In seeking to define the personalities of presidents, it is, if necessary, acceptable to draw one's own conclusions, and better to measure with a yardstick offered by someone who knew his subject personally; but in the case of Wilson, there is not much alternative to a writer's judgment.

In the instances of the next two presidents, and possibly the next three, a White House insider's judgment is fortunately available. The source of judgment is the memoir of the assistant White House physician, Joel T. …

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