About a century ago, the secretary of state convened a Cabinet meeting and asked the president's physician to sign a statement that Woodrow Wilson was medically unfit to continue as president.
The evidence was incontrovertible. Wilson had been found unconscious on a White House bathroom floor, having suffered a massive stroke. But Dr. Cary Grayson refused to go along with Secretary of State Robert Lansing's plan for a transfer of power to the vice president.
Instead, Dr. Grayson and first lady Edith Wilson conspired to keep Wilson under tight wraps in the White House. Even members of his administration couldn't get close enough to verify the positive spin Grayson and Edith Wilson put on the president's condition.
Wilson's mind was "not only clear but very active," the doctor said. All his patient had suffered was a touch of indigestion and "a depleted nervous system."
History may not repeat itself, but it sometimes comes mighty darn close.
Ever since the announcement of President Donald Trump testing positive for COVID-19, his physician has tap-danced much like Grayson did.
Dr. Sean Conley's news conferences on Trump's health have had a regular cycle: an announcement one day, a correction and sometimes an apology the next, but always with a shortage of specifics. Like why Trump is on a drug reserved for severe cases of the virus if his case is not that bad?
Conley's performances leave me with a persistent case of deja vu. They are reminiscent of Lansing charging Grayson with "carefully avoiding giving any definite information" in his rosy prediction of Wilson's impending recovery.
Today's White House spin masters have an advantage that Wilson's lacked. Trump can walk and talk for photo ops. Returning to the White House, Trump took off his mask, like a victorious knight doffing his helmet.
But Wilson was bedridden, and that presented a problem when the king and queen of Belgium arrived in Washington, D.C., for a state visit on Oct. 30, 1919.
Wilson received the royal couple propped up by pillows on his bed. He was unshaven, and his paralyzed left arm was covered by a blanket. The royals were seated on the right, within his limited field of vision, and the room was dimly lighted.
Edith Wilson and Grayson were poised to intervene should things go south. But Wilson managed a bit of conversation, and the press proclaimed the 15-minute event a success.
The charade was sustained through the remaining 16 months of Wilson's presidency. It began on Sept. 25, 1919, in Pueblo, Colorado, where Wilson was campaigning for his pet project, a League of Nations that would prevent reruns of the recent World War I. The peace treaty, in which the league was incorporated, had run into formidable opposition in the U.S. Senate.
When Wilson had trouble speaking and maintaining a coherent train of thought, Edith Wilson and Grayson persuaded him to return immediately to Washington. He'd had a premonition that death was trailing him on his four-week tour of the Western states.
"Even though, in my condition, it might mean giving up of my life, I will gladly give up my life to save the treaty," Wilson told his secretary, the equivalent of today's chief of staff.
Once Edith Wilson and Grayson got him to the White House, all matters of state had to go through her. She called her political role "my stewardship."
"I had talked with him so much that I knew pretty well what he thought of things," she afterward explained.
Her motivation was love. Their marriage was only 4 years old, and she feared that if he were removed from office, he'd lose the will to live.
To me, that conjures up a vision of Trump lusting after a second term that would erase the stain of his impeachment.
Will the incumbent president get to see his dream realized? That will be clear in just a few weeks. But we know that Wilson's vision was unfulfilled, and we can make an educated guess why.
He'd rejected advice to take some Republicans with him to Paris when the peace treaty was negotiated and make it a bipartisan issue.
Lying in his bed when the peace treaty was debated in the Senate, his supporters and his wife urged Wilson to cut a deal with its opponents. It wouldn't take much — just language saying that the nation's war powers resided with Congress and not the League of Nations. But Wilson wouldn't compromise.
On March 19, 1920, the peace treaty was defeated in the Senate. So America didn't belong to a severely weakened League of Nations.
The Democratic Party denied Wilson its 1920 nomination, and its candidate was decisively defeated. Wilson died in 1924 having never recovered from his stroke nor acknowledging where his League of Nations campaign went wrong.