EDITH AND WOODROW: A Presidential Romance by Tom Shactman

EDITH AND WOODROW: A Presidential Romance

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There is a nugget of an idea here: that in the courtship of Woodrow Wilson and Edith Bolling Gait, the second Mrs. Wilson, may be found an explanation of her fierce protectiveness when he became incapacitated in office. But any merit the idea may have is largely vitiated by the banal, patched-together text--which is less the story of a relationship, in fact, than a review of its two salient episodes bulked out with meaningless ticker-tape history. Shachtman (The Da)' America Crashed) first summarizes Wilson's life up to his first wife's death.; then, citing authorities on bereavement, he hypothesizes the stages of Wilson's grief--in order to demonstrate (without reference to his known physical and emotional needs) that he was ready for a new attachment when he shortly met the eligible Mrs. G. Her life-to-date is likewise summarized and there follows the account of their courtship, drawing heavily on their effusive love letters. Shachtman observantly comments that she matched her tone to his, while the letters themselves reveal that she was privy to matters-of-state and quickly expressed misgivings about his closest aides. But all this comes out also in the new collection of the letters, A President in Love (p. 70), where one is meanwhile spared Shachtman's clichÉs and cloddish wordings (""After ardent talk and physicality from Wilson. . . Edith consented to their becoming engaged""). Once the two are married, the book chiefly recaps public events--the Mexican imbroglio, American entrance into the war, the Fourteen Points, Versailles, the League of Nations fight--until Wilson suffers a physical breakdown and Edith undertakes, with his physician, to cover up the extent of his impairment. We have been told of her increasing ""self-assurance""; we know (from Shachtman and everyone else) of her vendetta against anyone she suspects of less than total fealty; we can believe in her need to preserve--for herself and for him--the image of the man she married. To what extent she also convinced herself that this was for the good of the country is, however, unknowable. Much of this last, very much most interesting section is a more benign alternative to Gene Smith's version of Wilson's later years in When the Cheering Stopped. Shachtman, however, is too little the scholar or the personal portraitist to put it across-and the bulk of the book conveys very little, badly.

Pub Date: March 26th, 1981
Publisher: Putnam