By night three of my hauntings by dead US presidents, our household was deeply divided. Jock maintained a mix of hope and concern. He wanted it to be over, yet held a deeper concern that it might be the first sign of a deeper, lasting problem. Hilda, on the other hand, was pirouetting at the front door, ready to head back to the graveyard.
“You are sure you won’t let me go with you? You are certain you want to do this alone?” Jock asked for the hundredth time. His gallantry was appreciated, but to be frank, I didn’t trust him to behave around President Wilson.
I struggled to get Hilda’s leash on the wiggling, dancing mass of fur and excitement, and explained, yet again, how in a few hours this would all be over and thus far everything had been fine.
I have to admit that the best part of this was walking with Hilda after dark. It is a nice time to reflect and to re-acquaint myself with the world as she sees it. I have to admit that after upsetting President Johnson, I really was not looking forward to President Wilson. “Last one, Hilda. Are you ready?” I asked her. She glanced up from a gravestone she was industriously sniffing and licked my hand. OK, then.
It is times like these I wished I smoked. Waiting is not my strong suit.
“Good evening, ladies.”
I turned around to see standing behind us a rather creepy looking older gentleman in a suit with a hard collar. His spectacles, walking stick and overcoat gave him an air vaguely reminiscent of Allister Sims in “A Christmas Carol.” He leaned down to talk to Hilda and scratch her ears.
“You are becoming quite famous, miss. You have charmed Knox and Andy Johnson.” He straightened and gave me a smile. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Gwenyfar. I’ve heard so much about you.”
“I hope some of it is good,” I stammered, thinking about the presidents whose names begin with “Andrew”; I had not charmed either of them.
“Most assuredly,” he smiled again. “Now, I suggest we get right down to brass tacks—time is of the essence.”
He began a leisurely stroll toward the bandstand. When I was younger I was convinced it was the one from The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine.”
“So, what do you wish to discuss? WWI? Constitutional amendments? Mexico? Income tax?”
“Well, certainly income tax remains one of the hot-button issues in everyone’s life—especially at election time,” I chuckled.
“That’s true—but it is not a laughing matter,” The president of Princeton broke through for a moment. “Passing the Underwood Act was essential to safeguard the country—and it was quite an event—the joint session of Congress was packed. Don’t forget we also lowered tariffs at the same time.”
He paused to look at me.
“Do you enjoy the eight-hour work day? That comes from the Adamson Act that was passed during my administration.”
“For which many people are thankful,” I agreed. “So, of course, close to my heart is the 19th Amendment.”
“I should hope so!” President Wilson boomed. “’Votes for Women!’ I can still hear the chants when I close my eyes. You know the National Women’s Party picketed me at the White House?”
Recalling pictures of the signs that compared him to the Kaiser, it seemed fair he took it so personally. I nodded affirmation and sucked in a deep breath for courage. “It seems fitting that Women’s Suffrage passed during your administration …” I ventured.
“Why do you say that?” He gave me a quizzical look.
“Well, while you were incapacitated, your wife, Edith, basically ran the White House.”
There I said it.
“She did what any woman would do when her husband was down for the count: She shouldered the burden until I was able to take it back.”
“Yes, sir,” I nodded. “I agree that partnership is what you are describing. In effect, you are putting into words that women are equally capable as men of holding and administering any office, even the highest in the land.”
I held my breath. I couldn’t believe I said it, even to a dead president. He stared at the ground for what felt like an eternity. I watched him work his jaw and resisted the urge to apologize.
“If you are using my Edith as an example of what you are arguing, then, yes, I concede that as my helpmeet she kept the presidency running smoothly. The world is a very different place today than it was in my time. Much has changed. Your Mr. Obama is one example.”
I weighted my options: Should I risk mentioning …
“Speaking of Mr. Obama, one of the reasons we talk about you on my Literary History Tour is your connection to Thomas F. Dixon, of ‘The Clansman’ and ‘Birth of a Nation’ fame …”
“Yes, Tom was my college chum,” he nodded.
“Your book is quoted in the film, and it was …“
He held his hands up to stop me. “One: I am not responsible for where and when I am quoted. Two: I am not going to waste the valuable time we have here rehashing and arguing the sociological aspects of a time that has passed.”
My jaw dropped.
“Your Mr. Obama is president. Mrs. Clinton is a serious candidate for president. Neither of these items would have been imaginable in my lifetime outside of a lampoon. I’m dead. The country has moved on. I suggest we do as well.”
He glanced at his watch. “We have enough time to discuss autos or the League of Nations. Which do you select?”
I decided asking for prohibition of the Federal Reserve System was probably going to result in an early end to our discussion. A bird in the hand…
“Well, sir, your fascination with cars is well-documented, and though most Americans share it, perhaps the League of Nations is the more important topic.”
“Ah, well, the league was the bright shining hope for the world after the War to End All Wars.”
There we go, I thought. The segue.
“You know, sir, when you look at modern presidents’ willingness to declare war, your hedging and diplomacy regarding entrance into The Great War is rather surprising.”
“Well, the Europeans were so … my attention was needed elsewhere.”
“Even after the Zimmerman telegram? When you knew Germany wanted Mexico to reclaim Texas, New Mexico and Arizona?”
“Posturing. Bullies posture. Mexico was too busy with internal problems and Pancho Villa to genuinely aide the Germans.”
“Anyway, we did do it, we did enter the war. It is sort of surprising to hear you arguing for it—from all your writing, I thought you were a pacifist.”
“Well, sir, that is a question I struggle with daily. Please, don’t think I was arguing for entrance into WWI. More I was curious how you maintained that position for so long. Compared to your successors, it is surprising.”
“I’m sure it is. Well, I tried to keep my campaign promises. I campaigned on neutrality and I meant it. We lowered traffic, and I wanted to expand trade, not limit it. You know, for all the posturing that television has added to politics, it doesn’t make it any easier to send thousands of young men to miserable certain deaths in trenches on the other side of the globe. That wasn’t something to do lightly.”
“I’m sure we all hope those in power view decisions with such weight,” I whispered.
He nodded. “Let’s hope so.” We both looked around at the sea of white stones marking the loss of lives by those who gave for our country when the leaders called. I glanced toward my friend Mac’s grave and silently prayed for his forgiveness that we have such a discussion here.
“That, perhaps, is one of the more frustrating parts of elections for me,” President Wilson continued. “Posturing is so important, and charisma, to an extent—especially now. Somehow, asking the electorate to consider the person they are electing should have a conscience seems beyond the realm of possibility.”
I truly could not answer anything back to him. I disagree with many of the policies he championed politically and personally in his lifetime. I question his judgement and self knowledge—all from the benefit of hindsight. But that statement in its simplicity hit me hard.
“Yes, Mr. President, you are right. We only seem to have made it harder, not easier to do.”
“So it looks like I am your last visitor for a while—at least before the election. Though apparently Fillmore claims you and he need to have a brandy together.”
He smiled at me. “I hope this is not the last time we meet.” We shook hands. “Hilda,” he scratched her ears and whispered “You should run for office—you seem far more intelligent than most people these days.”
Hilda rewarded him with her favorite trick: She winked one eye at him.