In 1917, New Year's Day was a gloomy one at the White House. Just after Christmas it had been noted that President Woodrow Wilson was ill, and pneumonia had been diagnosed. Since then he had been getting steadily worse.
Chapter of Accidents; How Bryan Returned From The DeadThat evening, he struggled to say a few words, but could barely be understood and lapsed into unconsciousness. He died in the small hours of Tuesday, January 2nd.
President Thomas R Marshall and the Democratic National Chairman, Vance C McCormick, arranged a hasty meeting. With less than a week to go before the Electoral College cast its votes, the Democratic ticket had to be named in a hurry. No doubt, of course, who the presidential candidate must be. At such short notice, it was far to late to look for anyone other than Marshall, even if some rather wished they could. But he needed a "running-mate".
Part 1 of a new story by Mike StoneMcCormick floated the name of William Gibbs McAdoo, son-in-law to the late President. Marshall did not object aloud, but was not keen. Remembering how the Wilson cabinet had snubbed him and ignored his opinions (to the point where he had given up attending after a few months) he had little fondness for it, and was in no hurry to favour any of its members. To gain some thinking time, he insisted on a courtesy offer being made to William Jennings Bryan, the party's elder statesman, even if somewhat shopworn of late. "I don't suppose for a minute he'll accept. After all, he was offered it in 1912, but he turned it down.When you've run for President three times, Vice President is a bit too much of a come down. But let's do it anyway".
Against his better judgement, Mc Cormick had acquiesced.
Bryan studied the message thoughtfully. Vice President was, indeed, a rather anticlimactic note on which to end his career - and it was ending. That was why they hadn't turned to him in 1912; the world was passing him by. And yet - -. He had rejected the position in 1912, and that had now proved a terrible mistake. Had he swallowed his pride and accepted, then he, not Marshall, would now - -. Had the Sin of Pride cost him his last chance for the office he had sought so long? He reached his decision.
The telegram came back within an hour. "Delighted to serve my party and country in any way you wish. Accepted with thanks". McCormick groaned as he read it, but Marshall was philosophic. "Well, I guess we're stuck with him.
And [with a chuckle] if I could do the job, I'm sure he can". The telegrams went out to advise the Democratic Electors. Despite some raised eyebrows, they made no trouble; on January 8, Marshall and Bryan received all of Wilson's 277 votes. The New York Times expressed a general feeling in its editorial. "If it was felt, for whatever reason, that Mr Bryan must be offered some post, the Vice Presidency is probably the one where he can do least harm".
By the time the Electors met, Marshall had already made his first gaffe. At Wilson's funeral, he spoke in glowing terms of the late President's work for peace, and declared "I pledge myself that so long as I am your President, never will any American be sent to war, unless an invader's evil foot already stands upon our shore. Should that happen, they will need their legs - and arms - for swimming". Wild rumours soon took flight as to who had drafted those words, with Bryan as the principal suspect, but the truth was more prosaic. Marshall had inadvertantly taken the wrong paper from his briefcase, and rather than perform an undignified rummage, chose to ad lib from a talk he'd given at another funeral, a couple of years before. Unfortunately, it was that of a sailor killed in Mexico, in the course of Mr Wilson's intervention there. When Edith Galt Wilson learned of this, she was incensed. Taking his words as a slight on her late husband, she never spoke to Marshall again.
Others were scarcely happier. In a quiet whisper to Colonel House, Secretary of State Robert Lansing observed "That hick has just given away our whole position on our maritime rights, before the President's even buried yet".
House nodded. "I think I know how people must have felt when Andrew Johnson took over from Lincoln. ("Yep", interjected Lansing, "another alcoholic1"). And look at the way he's cut and run from Mexico, without even talking to the Cabinet".
"No prizes for guessing who persuaded him" responded House. "For Pete's sake, Bryan supported the Vera Cruz expedition in '14, but you'd never guess it listening to him now. Still, small mercies. At least Roosevelt's not here. That speech could have given him a heart attack". Ex-Presidents Taft and Roosevelt had both been invited, of course. Taft had come, but TR developed an illness which was widely assumed to be diplomatic.
"You should have heard what Ambassador Page told me when he was over here last Summer" added Lansing. "You know, Marshall said he took care never to read any of the papers the Allies or Germans put out, in case they caused him to form an opinion and stop being neutral. Talk about a world statesman".
"Indeed" responded House. "It is a tragedy".
House left Washington the next day. He had never held any official position, and had no personal ties with the new President. Lansing also departed, though not from choice. The pro forma resignation which he had submitted, with the other Cabinet officers, on a change of President, had been accepted, and Bryan was back at State for the next two months. Marshall quickly explained that there was nothing personal in this. As Vice-President Elect, Bryan was entitled to be first in line of succession, for which purpose he needed to be Secretary of State until March 4. Lansing wondered if that was all there was to it. So did many others; but Marshall's explanation was good enough for the Senate, who confirmed Bryan to what one newspaper described as "the sound of 192 shoulders all being shrugged at once" .
Count Johannes von Bernstorff felt his stomach knotting up as he stepped out of the Embassy into the cab waiting to take him to the State Department. He had warned his government again and again what a declaration of Unrestricted Sumarine War might do, but declare it they had, and now it fell to him to deliver the message. And at this of all moments, when the accession of a new President offered the chance of a fresh start in German-American relations. The Ambassador felt like weeping.
To be continued