Breaking up, they say, is hard to do. We were recently reminded of that by the messy split between President Trump and former top advisor Steve Bannon.
Many presidents relied on “the guy,” the innermost member of their inner circle. Someone who was part adviser, part confidante; a bit of a buddy and a lot of alter ego.
Occasionally those relationships soured. And when they did, the fallout was spectacularly bitter. Take Woodrow Wilson and his version of Steve Bannon. Here’s what happened.
Edward House was an insider’s insider, a wealthy, smooth-talking Texan with a gift for wriggling his way into the good graces of the rich and powerful. His dad, a wealthy businessman and mayor of Houston, sent him to influential schools in England and Virginia. House eventually sold the family cotton plantations and invested in banking. Then he built a railroad. The man had the Midas Touch.
House became interested in politics. He helped make James Hogg governor of Texas and was rewarded with the honorary position of colonel on Hogg’s staff. From then on he was Colonel House.
The Colonel became a kingmaker. He had a gift for spotting political promise and making his candidates winners. By 1911, House was ready to play in the big leagues.
He moved to New York and quickly became best friends with the powerful elite. He grew so close to mega-millionaire J.P. Morgan that he called him “Jack.” Gazing into nearby New Jersey, Gov. Woodrow Wilson caught his eye. The Colonel saw a man who would be president and ingratiated himself to the governor.
And it worked. Once again, he played a quietly influential role that helped Wilson reach the White House. The new president was so grateful, he offered the Colonel any position he wanted (except secretary of state, which had been promised to someone else.) Thanks, but no thanks, House said. He was happy to remain behind the scenes.
Wilson ate that up with a spoon. In his idealistic eyes, House was acting on a desire to serve the common good, not advance personal interests. The Colonel rose from shadow Cabinet member to Wilson’s best friend. House’s Manhattan apartment and Massachusetts summer home had direct phone lines to Wilson’s private study. The president developed what we today call a “bromance.” Here’s how Wilson described it: “Colonel House is my second personality … his thoughts and mine are one."
When the secretary of state resigned, House made sure Robert Lansing got the position, then quietly did the job himself. A popular joke in Washington went as follows:
Question: How do you spell Lansing?
Then something happened that changed everything.
Wilson’s wife died. In 1915, he remarried. The second Mrs. Wilson didn’t like Colonel House one bit. From the moment she moved into the White House, Edith Wilson began conspiring against her new husband’s BFF.
House’s downfall was a long time coming. Perhaps the adage “familiarity breeds contempt” was to blame. Maybe the friendship had run its course. Gradually, friction developed between the two.
The breaking point came during negotiations over the Treaty of Versailles after World War I. The Colonel accompanied Wilson to Paris as part of the American delegation.
House had a talent for compromising; Wilson simply could not. Struggling to devise a treaty that was agreeable to the various Allied nations, Wilson saw the Colonel’s flexibility on his cherished Fourteen Points as a personal betrayal. That created bitterness, with Edith Wilson fanning the flames.
With the treaty signed, House escorted Wilson to the train station for the first leg of the president’s return home. The two men never saw or spoke to each other again. That simply was that.
For his part, Colonel House didn’t trash talk his former patron, publicly or privately. There was no nasty memoir or bombshell tell-all interview. It was like the relationship had never existed.
Trump and Bannon would do well to learn from history. Deep personal splits happen from time to time. When they do, the less said about them, the better. For all of us.
J. Mark Powell (@JMarkPowell) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a former broadcast journalist and government communicator. His weekly offbeat look at our forgotten past, "Holy Cow! History," can be read at jmarkpowell.com.
If you would like to write an op-ed for the Washington Examiner, please read our guidelines on submissions here.