Causing a tumult: Wilson's "dear boy" raised eyebrows

The powerful advisor. That ephemeral figure who stoops to whisper into the ear of the almighty and then slinks back into the shadowy recesses off the Oval Office. Yes, there’s nothing sexier than the eminence gris of the White House. Unless, of course, it’s Carl Rove or Dick Cheney– in which case, anything is sexier.
Back in the day when the West Wing wasn’t swarming with bright young things raised on the political staples of sound bite and spin (and tarnished old things raised on something even more unwholesome), Presidents were expected to do their job with the sole support of the Cabinet and a staff of accomplished scribes.
Such was the general tradition when Woodrow Wilson arrived in Washington in 1912; but the 28th President had a force for change in his entourage, and his name was Joseph Tumulty.
“Tumulty was a very smooth, pleasant, emollient Irish politician,” says UVA Law professor Jeffrey O’Connell, who expects to publish his research on Tumulty this year. “He was also, arguably, the most powerful presidential aide ever.”
That’s because Tumulty had figured out the essentials of modern politics: charm the media and chum with the Congress. It’s also because a massive stroke left Wilson debilitated for the last year and a half of his second term, and Tumulty became his mouthpiece.
Deep respect on Wilson’s part and unwavering loyalty from Tumulty made for a long-lasting co-dependency between the President and his Secretary. Tumulty’s many roles included those of press secretary, senior political advisor, speechwriter, and Congressional liaison for the President. Throughout his two terms, Wilson often referred to his high-powered, ever-present aide as “my dear boy.”
“It was an avuncular relationship,” is how O’Connell puts it.
Wilson’s attachment to Tumulty survived a throng of opponents. Jealous advisors warned against delegating power to a Roman Catholic; Wilson’s second wife Edith held a grudge against the young aide, who had advised Wilson to delay his second marriage following the death of his first wife.
Ultimately Tumulty and Edith formed an uneasy alliance to deceive the nation about the President’s health and prevent the ascension of a mediocre Vice President to power. It was an ethically problematic act of loyalty, but it did work. Edith effectively ran the country from 1919 to 1921, says O’Connell, while Tumulty “became the minion of a scheming woman whose power he helped her assume.” And in the end she succeeded in turning her enfeebled, intransigent husband against the minion.
I told you it was sexy.

Jeffrey O’Connell will discuss Joseph Tumulty as “An Irish Catholic Victimized by Bigotry and More,” at the Miller Center on Friday, January 31, at 11am. 2201 Old Ivy Road. 924-0921.