And they called President Coolidge “Silent Cal”!
Coolidge, in perhaps an apocryphal story, was said to have been seated at a dinner next to a woman who said to him, “I bet I can get more than three words out of you.”
Coolidge replied, “You lose.”
No one ever said President Woodrow Wilson was laconic, but do you know what he said about the horrific Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19?
At least not publicly. He must have talked about it privately because he caught it himself, but, as incredible as it seems, there is no record of the president of the United States ever making a public statement on the pandemic.
No speeches to advise the people what to do, no statements on measures being taken to prevent the spread of the virus, no daily updates, no reassurances, no mourning the dead.
It shows how much — for better or worse — things have changed in a century. At that time, it was not seen as the president’s role to give the public health advice or to soothe their fears.
Wilson spoke a great deal in support of American involvement in World War I (after campaigning for re-election in 1916 on a pledge to keep us out), but he said nothing about the flu pandemic.
Equally astonishing to believe now, evidently the newspapers did not hound him about it, either. You would think some enterprising reporter might have said, “Mr. President, what do you think of the flu that has killed 675,000 Americans?”
I guess it never came up.
I have a digital subscription to The New York Times, so I checked their archive, and they do have stories about the pandemic, but usually one article down the left side of the front page.
That’s about 40 fewer daily stories than the Times runs on the Coronavirus today.
The stories were mostly about the latest numbers of infections and deaths, and I did not see any assessment of how any elected official or government body was “handling” the crisis.
There may have been some, but I didn’t see any in the dozen or so dates that I checked randomly.
Recent articles I have read said that World War I overshadowed the flu and that is why papers barely mentioned it. Maybe for 1918, but the war ended in November of that year; what about 1919?
The flu does not seem to play a prominent role in 1920s fiction. F. Scott Fitzgerald talks about World War I in “The Great Gatsby.” That “Great Teutonic Migration” as narrator Nick Carraway calls it, looms over everything in the novel.
Yet the flu pandemic is never mentioned, even though Daisy and Gatsby met in her hometown of Louisville, which was home to Fort Taylor, particularly hard hit.
Frederick Lewis Allen’s popular book on the 1920s, “Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s,” devotes exactly one sentence to the Spanish flu.
At least that’s one more than sentence than President Wilson offered.
Likewise, you don’t see much if any coverage of the 1957 and 1968 flu pandemics in biographies of Eisenhower and Nixon, respectively.
It did not dominate the 30-minute evening news or fill the newspapers.
Now we have 24-hour media, and everything is talked about nonstop and the presidency is supposedly the focus of attention for all Americans.
William P. Warford’s column appears every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday.