Jill Biden, Edith Wilson, and the Changing American State

Much has been made over the last couple of days about President Biden’s behavior and demeanor at the ceremony honoring World War II veterans at Normandy on June 6, the 80th anniversary of D-Day. Biden looked…old—in large part because he is old. He shuffled like an old man. He got confused like an old man. He was hurried out of an event that was causing him consternation like an old man. Joe Biden is 81 years old and he looks every day of it—and more.

Some commentators, including the Republican Party’s Twitter/X account, suggested that President Biden’s deportment is embarrassing. “This is the most powerful man on the planet? This is the leader of the free world?” some wondered. How pathetic. How dispiriting. How truly and painfully excruciating!

Other observers insisted that the whole thing was just sad. After a lifetime of public service for Biden to be subjected to that kind of profound public humiliation is discomfiting, to say the least. No one deserves such a fate, regardless of political predisposition or partisan affiliation.

Still others said that the president’s condition is dangerous. That it encourages the nation’s friends and especially its enemies to think of the United States as weak and enfeebled. And with Russian warships steaming toward Cuba, apparently unconcerned about American reprisals, one takes their point.

Indeed, one takes all these points. President Biden is, quite simply, physically and mentally unfit for office. He should be sitting on the porch at his beach house in Rehoboth seven days a week, not sitting in the Oval Office. His presence there—not to mention his entreaty to be returned there for a second four-year term—is “all of the above.” It is embarrassing, sad, and dangerous.

More than anything, however, it is telling.

Many of the loudest and most resonant comments about President Biden’s circumstances note that he is forced to rely quite heavily on his wife, First Lady Jill Biden, to keep his embarrassment to a bare minimum. When he tried to sit down in an imaginary chair at the Normandy observance, she was the person who told him to remain standing. When he had to be ushered out of the ceremony quickly and conspicuously, she was the usher. Whatever Biden does, wherever he goes, whomever he sees, Jill is right there by his side, in large part to ensure that he does what he’s supposed to do, so as to spare him more serious embarrassment and, just as importantly, to try to ensure that he does not give his political rivals any fodder for the campaign.

Biden’s unusually intense reliance on his wife as a cognitive enhancement and an image protector is as inarguable as it is provocative. According to an NBC News profile, she is known in the White House as “the Decider,” and she wields “unparalleled influence.” “She is,” the profile continues, “her husband’s foremost defender. She guards his interests and dignity….Her input is essential in some of the weightiest political and personnel decisions the 46th president confronts.” She is to Biden what the left used to claim Dick Cheney was to George W. Bush, i.e., the power behind the throne.

All of this has drawn comparisons between Jill Biden and another uniquely powerful First Lady, Edith Wilson.

Some historians consider Edith Wilson the nation’s “first woman president”—and not without cause. When her husband, the execrable Woodrow Wilson, suffered a debilitating stroke on October 2, 1919, Mrs. Wilson essentially took over running the White House and, by extension, the entire executive branch. She screened all government business brought to the Oval Office. She handled all serious matters. Because he was left unable to write his name, she forged his signature on official documents. Most notably, Edith Wilson guarded her husband’s “interests and dignity” by keeping his infirmity secret from the public. As William Hazelgrove noted in his 2016 biography of her, Madam President: The Secret Presidency of Edith Wilson, “her Oval Office authority was acknowledged in Washington circles at the time—one senator called her “the presidentress who had fulfilled the dream of suffragettes by changing her title from First Lady to Acting First Man.”

The biggest difference between Edith Wilson and Jill Biden is that Wilson got away with it. While Jill Biden is front-and-center in her husband’s public life at all times, earning the admiration of his supporters and drawing the ire of his opponents, Edith Wilson worked effectively and quietly behind the scenes. Through quiet diligence and discretion, she was able to convince those outside of Washington that all was well in the White House and that her husband was still in charge. His stroke occurred more than 17 months before Warren G. Harding was inaugurated on March 4, 1921. That’s more than 35% of his second term and nearly one-fifth of his entire presidency.

Edith Wilson was able to keep this secret and succeed where Jill Biden has failed, not because she was especially crafty or exceptionally dishonest (although she was both) but because the president was not, at the time, the most important person in the world. The government was small enough and the presidency unimportant enough that no one missed Woodrow Wilson in the slightest. No one outside of Washington noticed or cared that he wasn’t around. No one needed him to fix their problems, right their wrongs or deliver retribution upon their enemies. No one needed him to be the cause of all economic activity or the source of the nation’s self-image. He wasn’t the “empathizer in chief” or a powerful father-like figure. He was a just a guy, albeit a guy with an important job, but not one that was so important that it completely preoccupied everyone’s waking hours. Celebrities didn’t obsess about the man or deliver foul-mouthed press conferences declaring that the world’s fate depended on his reelection. No one cared—and nor should they have.

If it seems that every election these days is billed as “the most important election ever,” that’s only because every election is the most important one ever. As we, as a society, continue to destroy any sense of community, any sense of autonomy, any sense of personal responsibility, and liberty, as we continue to invest more and more power in people and institutions far removed from our lives and our interests, we also continue to make elections and elected officials more and more important in the operation of those lives. We continue to give people who are not especially smart, especially talented or even especially competent greater and greater control over us. We continue to sacrifice that which the Founders fought for on the altar of our comfort and indolence.

No one in the country should give a tinker’s damn what Jill Biden thinks, says, or does. The fact that we obsess over those things serves as proof that we have come along way in the last century—and not necessarily in a good way.

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About Stephen Soukup

Stephen R. Soukup is the Director of The Political Forum Institute and the author of The Dictatorship of Woke Capital (Encounter, 2021, 2023)

Photo: SAINT-LAURENT-SUR-MER, FRANCE - JUNE 6: US President Joe Biden and US First Lady Jill Biden attend the official international ceremony to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day, at Omaha Beach on June 6, 2024 in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, France. The 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings, commemorated on June 6, marks the historic event when 156,000 troops from Allied countries, including the United Kingdom and the United States, joined forces to launch an attack on the beaches of Normandy. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Notable Replies

  1. When President Wilson had his stroke in October 1919 the damage was already done: an income tax and a Federal Reserve Board in place to finance world wars. Interfering in a foreign war. A punitive peace to wreck Germany’s economy and help Hitler rise to power.

    But maybe Jill Biden will help start World War III.

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