When you write two columns a week, you’re always looking for “pegs” on which to hang a column. By that I mean something that provides an excuse to write about something you probably just wanted to write about anyway: the anniversary of some event or the birthday of some interesting person, that sort of thing.
So in trying to think of a good column to be my last for 2020, I took a look back a century to see if life in 1920 could possibly have been as wild and crazy as it has been in 2020. I actually expected that idea to be a dead end. It wasn’t.
All kinds of noteworthy things happened in 1920, many of them foreshadowing aspects of our own year that’s now ending.
Obviously the aspect of 2020 that has dominated our attention is our guest that refuses to leave, COVID-19. We’re hoping, thanks to vaccines, that maybe we’ve begun the process of getting COVID hog-tied at last.
Folks in 1920 had a virus on their minds, too. That was the Spanish Flu virus that ravaged the world mostly in 1918 and 1919, but did stretch in a smaller way into 1920. Just like now, protective face masks during the flu period were a “thing” for Americans, mandated by law in lots of places. Those mandates were taken so seriously a century ago that a California policeman actually shot some people for refusing to obey a law requiring masks.
The Spanish Flu ultimately faded away, and we all can hope we’ll see a similar dying out of COVID-19, especially in that we have vaccines coming into the picture. Our forbears didn’t have nearly the level of medical expertise and experience to guide them as we do a century later.
That explosion in Nashville days ago also was presaged by something that happened in 1920. In September of that year, somebody drove a horse-drawn cart that carried an improvised explosive device onto Wall Street at a particularly busy corner. The blast, apparently the work of Italian terrorists, was described as “two sheets of flame that seemed to envelop the whole width of Wall Street and as high as the tenth story of the tall buildings.” Hundreds were injured and 38 people died.
Unlike the Nashville incident, there was no forewarning given of a coming explosion. It simply happened.
It was the worst terrorism event in the United States at that time, and retained that status until Oklahoma City and Timothy McVeigh.
One of the most interesting and little-remembered aspects of 1920 has to be that our nation had its first female president … in a way. She wasn’t really, officially a president. She merely acted as one.
In the fall of the prior year, President Woodrow Wilson suffered a massive stroke that left him unable to carry out the activities and functions of normal life, much less the functions of being POTUS.
In stepped his wife, Edith, who was highly protective of her husband. She managed to pull off something that probably wouldn’t be possible in our current world: she restricted almost all access to her bed-ridden spouse, hiding how bad his condition was, and acting in his stead many times.
This extended to her wrapping her hand around his, pen between his fingers, and moving his hand and pen for him to sign legislation, proclamations, correspondence, and so on.
There were some who knew what was going on. The French ambassador to the United States wrote to his superiors back home that the president was no longer an actual part of the American scene, the power residing with “Mme. President.”
Woodrow Wilson managed to live out his term as pretty much an invalid, his wife protecting and guarding him all the while, as she continued to do until his death in 1924.
Did Edith Wilson do the right thing by the country and its constitution in sidestepping the official way such situations were to be handled? Maybe not, though she seemingly did get away with it.
It would be hard to argue, though, that she didn’t do right by her husband. She protected him and shielded him diligently, making his well-being her priority. She cared about the man more than about the office he held, and that is heart-warming, regardless of any political/governmental unorthodoxy that went along with it.
Given that 1920 also saw women gaining voting rights, there’s something that feels symbolically appropriate about a woman quietly working the machinations of the nation’s presidency during that same time.
Yes, 2020 has been an unusual year, but clearly 1920 was as well. There were bumps in the road then, but the road went on. As we put 2020 behind us, our road will go on as well. Let’s make the best of it.