Monday, February 26, 2007

Flashback: The Oxygen Tent Removed, Let the Yesteryear Talk Renew.

Empty Hospital Corridor
[Memories from fifty years for my kids and thirteen grandchildren].

When next Mother I arrived at the hospital, a nurse approached us as we walked down the corridor…a sight that still, when repeated, makes me apprehensive. “I wanted to tell you something,” she said as she jointly drew in our breath. “No, it’s good. The oxygen tent has been removed and your husband and Father is extremely happy about it.” As were we. Mother embraced Father for the first time and congratulated him for being a good patient which resulted in its removal.

“All things come to he who waits,” she said quoting St. Catherine of Siena. “You see? You’ve been calm and good and this is the result.”

“Ah, yes,” he said as he leafed through the newspaper.

She said she hadn’t had dinner so I sat with him while she went to the cafeteria.

It’s been a long time since you indoctrinated me during the shaving sessions, I said. Have you changed in any substantial way?

“What do you mean?”

Well, when you were holding forth it was in the `30s. It is now the `60s. You told me that the first fatal thing that happened to this country in the Era of the Modern was the presidency of Woodrow Wilson and his pressure to take us into the First World War.

“Exactly right. Consider that he was reelected in 1916 with the slogan `He Kept Us Out of War’. Not long after his reelection, it made his bow on the world stage with an arrogant presumption. He called upon the warring European powers to let him mediate a `peace without victory.’ Can’t you imagine that the European powers asked: who the hell are you? Of course the warring nations rejected it and Germany announced that on February 1, 1917, it would use unrestricted submarine warfare against the Brits and ports of Britain’s allies in the Mediterranean. Wilson broke off relations at once and sent the German ambassador back to Berlin in early February. What was the reason? The slyest trick of all—one which would have taxed even the imagination of Franklin Roosevelt.”

The bogus telegram?

“The bogus telegram. It purported to be a message from the German foreign minister, Arthur Zimmermann, to the government of Mexico which said that if war broke out between Germany and the U. S., Germany on winning would promptly restore to Mexico the territories it lost—Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. The message was transmitted to Wilson by—you could have guessed—a British cryptographer. Neat little package, right? Nobody saw the original; the so-called `translation’ was given to Wilson by the Brits who sorely wanted us to join the war to win it for them. And the American people tended to believe it—except for the `Tribune’ of course.”

Your favorite newspaper is somewhat more wobbly these days, I’m afraid. Now since we will never know how fraudulent the purported Zimmermann telegram was or was not, what led you to believe that Wilson’s character was so rotten—and how do you document it?

“All that needs to be known about Wilson is that he was emotionally unbalanced. He had what they called a nervous breakdown as a student and his intransigence, his failure to compromise coupled with his insults to those who disagreed with him, paved the way for his messianic vision as the leader of the world and his inability to accept the Lodge Reservation which would have guaranteed that the Senate would approve the treaty along with the League.

“Take a look at one of his bitterest quarrels which received little attention then and less now. He was a first-rate professor at Princeton; then was hired as president. That was the error. Giving Wilson authority over an institution was a big mistake. He immediately saw his messianic destiny as abolishing exclusive dining clubs—not exactly an important step on the road to democracy let us say. But after he won that dispute, his eyes glistened as if he was seeing a vision as he outlined an expansion of the graduate school.”

We talked for a long time about this guy Wilson. An emotional cripple, lacking confidence with bravado to make up for it. A long conversation ensued, one of the best we ever had. At the end I asked what happened to Wilson’s idea of a redesigned graduate school, with money used for it at the expense of the undergraduate school.

“The man who abolished elitist dining clubs was at heart an elitist. It was his graduate school which he would make the equal of Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford. He wanted to spend the money there. That would have been fine but given that he had proved himself a terrible fund-raiser, was entirely inappropriate and the money he wanted to spend would have bankrupted the university. Nevertheless he charged on. This guy alienated the faculty, the board of trustees and even Grover Cleveland, a Democratic ex-president, a member of the board of trustees, who sided against him. He charged them all with defending privilege as against democracy. The ravings of a man who was not quite right in the head. He actually said that those who disagreed with him were `traitors to American’s ideals.’ They canned his ass as well they should have, the board voting unanimously against him, including Cleveland, and he was a man without a future in academe.”

Mother entered the room at that moment. “We could hear you out in the corridor. Who was canned?”

“Woodrow Wilson. My voice carries, does it?”

“The nurses enjoy your use of colorful language. You used colorful words to describe your lunch.”


“No! That’s good, Hon. Your voice is stronger and you’re stronger. I married you for your opinions.”

“Certainly not for my dancing.”

“Not for your dancing: that’s right. See, my father thought Wilson was a saint and martyr. You changed my mind. I just hope you’re right. It would be terrible if a man with your well-stated opinions would be wrong—just because Wilson was a liberal. You wouldn’t do that, would you?”

“No. I liked Lodge and he was a liberal.”

But (I asked) how did Wilson surmount that firing?

“By his visionary Messiah nature which wowed your newspaperman friends. Liberalism was and is the religion people get when they ditch religion.”

I’ll remember that.

“Please do.”

He must have done something beyond that to get elected Governor of New Jersey.

“Not really. You see it wasn’t all that different from today. FDR started out with Arthur Krock of the `New York Times’ who thought Roosevelt was conservative. Wilson was adored by George Harvey.”

…Who was--?

“Editor of `Harper’s’ magazine whose contacts centered on J. P. Morgan, Jr. who always wanted a conservative Democrat to go along with the conservative pro-business Republicans so business wouldn’t have to worry when the Democrats got in. The same general philosophy that later had them romancing Al Smith and a whole list of Democrats in 1932 who would be good pro-business types including Franklin Roosevelt who was being buttered up by Joe Kennedy no less.”

So what did Harvey do?

“Harvey used his connections with Morgan, who like his father was the undisputed king of American finance, to importune, let us say, certain prominent reporters who loved to sup at the great man’s table in off-the-record sessions. Those sessions lasted for years, every month or so. All the while Harvey was touting this fired college president as the guy to run for governor of New Jersey and from there to the presidency to snatch the Democratic nomination away from the man Morgan truly despised—William Jennings Bryan who had run against McKinley twice in `96 and `00 and against Taft in `08 as the enemy of Wall Street .

“Morgan feared Bryan and feared a return of Teddy. Teddy was still a young man, remember. Morgan wanted a conservative Democrat to start climbing the ladder. Wilson was to be the guy, born in the south, born in Virginia, who practiced law in Georgia—a true southern racist, by the way—also an enemy of the Germans and the Irish along with all other immigrants--who had written favorably about the Ku Klux Klan in his book `A Constitutional History of the American People.’ He hated unions; he loved trusts, called monopolies justified and that political bosses were necessary to keep government running smoothly. So Morgan got his friends together and in those days money could be hidden from complete disclosure and they carried for Wilson as governor in 1910. Once again, conservatives were fooled.”

What breed of cat was Wilson?

“Screwed up, as all—or most—liberals are. You know my view: Liberalism is at its root a belief in a false god: a substitute for religion. Wilson was a dissident son of a minister who didn’t get on with his father or the church. A friend of Harvey’s—a journalist who was a Wilson devotee—wrote later that Wilson told him that he was meant for the `rough and tumble of politics’—his words. Adding `my instinct turns that way.’”

Not all that bad.

“But the instinct was a hunger for fame to get even with a very critical father, who was a minister, and show him that Wilson had what it takes. When he was courting his first wife, who died early, he wrote her he wanted to `drive the opinion from the entire world in my favor for change.’ So after he took J. P. Morgan’s money and his friends money and got in as governor of New Jersey, he took a sharp turn to the Left. Where have you heard that before? Overnight he changed his opinion about unions. They were now good. Trusts were now bad. Big business had to be tamed. That set him up for favorable press—you know all about favorable press from your Minnesota days, don’t you? And right away he was in the race for president in 1912. Nobody wanted Bryan any more; that would be his fourth run. Taft was the guy for J. P. Morgan—not perfect—but here was Teddy coming back as a Progressive, the man J. P. Morgan feared almost as much as Bryan. So with Teddy splitting the Republican vote, Woodrow Wilson, once a conservative now a liberal, got in with 42 percent of the vote.”

“Hon, that’s enough for tonight,” Mother said. “It’s just like the old days with you talking like that, dear. I love you. We’re going to go home now and let you get some rest.”

“I don’t feel tired,” said Father. “You both will come tomorrow?”

We will.

As we walked down the hospital corridor, she said: “Tommy, we’ve got to be brave.”

Be brave? He was just like the old days. No oxygen tent--.

“I know. I’ve talked to the heart surgeon and he’s not optimistic. I mean, it’s good they took the oxygen tent down, good he’s more enthusiastic but they’re not giving me a lot more to go on. They still don’t think he’ll make it, Tommy. We’ve got to be very optimistic with him, get him to talk politics as you have—but all the while, be ready for what may happen. And it may happen suddenly.”

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