This Week In Texas History: The wizard behind the curtainBartee Haile November 23, 2022 0 COMMENTS
On Nov. 24, 1911, Woodrow Wilson met the obscure kingmaker from the Lone Star State who would make him the 28th president of the United States.
Over dinner that historic evening at his New York penthouse, Edward Mandell House decided the scholarly governor of New Jersey was the ideal Democrat to break the Republicans’ 16-year hold on the Oval Office.
A Lone Star quartet exercised unprecedented power in national politics during the first seven decades of the twentieth century: John Nance Garner, Sam Rayburn, Lyndon Baines Johnson and E.M. House. Of the four, only House never held public office preferring instead to work his magic behind the scenes.
As the son of a wealthy Houston banker, House was educated in elite eastern prep schools. After his father’s death in 1880, the youth dropped out of college and collected a handsome inheritance. He soon married and moved to Austin to be at the nerve center of state politics.
Gov. James S. Hogg faced an uphill struggle for reelection in 1892, until the diminutive 33-year-old took charge of his sputtering campaign. With House at the helm, Hogg won a dramatic come-from-behind victory as the tiny tutor polished his abrasive brand of populism. For the next 14 years, House reigned supreme in the Texas wing of the Democratic Party.
The three governors that succeeded Hogg were all groomed and guided by the master strategist. After serving the customary two terms, C.A. Culberson advanced to the
U.S. Senate, where he was a permanent though rarely sober fixture for a quarter century. J.D. Sayers and S.W.T. Lanham were lackluster leaders, whose mutual claim to fame was they were the last Confederates chosen chief executive.
At the end of Lanham’s second term in 1907, House withdrew from state affairs to ponder the prospects on the Potomac. Bored by gubernatorial games, he set his sights on the biggest prize of all — the presidency.
In Woodrow Wilson he found his dream candidate. The Ivy League reformer and the taciturn Texan turned out to be philosophical soul mates with virtually identical visions for restructuring American society.
Despite his privileged background, House was a closet radical. In private he not only defended the rights of labor unions but advocated compulsory retirement for Supreme Court justices, a federal income tax and a guaranteed stipend for the aged. Tame proposals by today’s standards, but a century ago such suggestions smacked of subversion.
Benefiting from the colonel’s expert advice and extensive contacts, Wilson arrived at the 1912 Democratic national convention with a fighting chance for the nomination. From the opening gavel, the Texas delegation stood firm in support of the dark horse, who finally captured the top spot on the ticket on the 46th ballot.
Wilson carried Democratic Texas with 73 percent of the popular vote — nearly three times the combined total of Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and socialist Eugene Debs — on his way to an electoral college avalanche. House and his cronies were generously rewarded for a job well done with three cabinet posts and dozens of key appointments.
The most important Texan declined any formal role and simply kept what he already had — the ear and absolute trust of the new president. Wilson never made a major
move without first checking with the colonel.
Five months after reelection as the anti-war candidate in 1916, Wilson sent the doughboys off to the European bloodbath. It was House, who convinced the cynical Allies to accept the idealistic American’s Fourteen Points as the basis for the peace parley.
During the protracted post-war negotiations in Paris, domestic matters demanded the president’s personal attention. A month later, he was appalled by the compromises House had accepted in his absence.
Wilson said little to his mentor upon sailing for home on Jun. 28, 1919, the day the controversial Treaty of Versailles was signed. Staying behind to wrap up the tedious details, House would never see his protege again.
By the time the colonel returned to Washington, Wilson was a bedridden invalid, the victim of a debilitating stroke. For the last year and a half of her paralyzed husband’s term, Edith Wilson functioned as the unelected president of the United States.
House’s repeated efforts to contact his stricken friend were foiled by the vindictive First Lady, who did not forget his fruitless attempt to sabotage her 1915 marriage to the White House widower. His letters went unanswered, and most were not even opened until the Wilson papers were transferred to the Library of Congress in 1952.
As funeral services were held for Woodrow Wilson in February 1924, a solitary figure stood outside the church in a cold drizzle. Unforgiving to the bitter end, Edith Wilson denied E.M. House the opportunity to pay his last respects.
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