Woodrow Wilson: A Frenzied Pedagogue

November 1, 2013 Topics: The PresidencyPolitics Regions: United States

Woodrow Wilson: A Frenzied Pedagogue

Mini Teaser: From Princeton to the presidency, he never doubted that he was right. He should have—and so should his biographers.

by Author(s): Amity Shlaes

A. Scott Berg, Wilson (New York: Putnam, 2013), 832 pp., $40.00.

WHICH PREVIOUS president does President Barack Obama resemble most?

Historians have likened the forty-fourth president to the thirty-second, Franklin Roosevelt. Obama, after all, chose to open his first term with a progressive campaign that explicitly evoked FDR’s progressive Hundred Days. But Roosevelt functioned in a more political and opportunistic fashion than does Obama.

Asked once about his philosophy by a close colleague, Frances Perkins, Roosevelt replied, “I’m a Christian and a Democrat, that’s all.” Obama, by contrast, approaches topics with the comprehensive high-mindedness of a law-school professor. Roosevelt lived fraternally, for and in coalitions, whether the task was building them up or knocking them down. FDR’s New Deal consisted of an entire network of deals between varying parties—between government and Congress, or, for a time, between government and big business, and between a leader and his people. Obama places less emphasis on “between.” Our current president prefers to go it alone. Instead of a deal, Obama offers principles for others to endorse if they wish.

Recently, scholars have started to point to similarities between Obama and another two-term progressive professor, Woodrow Wilson. After all, the twenty-eighth president, like Obama, looked at the world in terms of idea and cause. And in the case of Wilson, like Obama, there is a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. “Are people interested in personalities rather than in principles?” Wilson’s daughter Nell recalls Wilson asking in 1912 as he campaigned for president. “If that is true they will not vote for me.”

Perhaps because 2013 marks the centenary of Wilson’s inauguration, the Obama-Wilson comparisons are popping up with greater frequency. Often, the subject seems to be not whether Obama evokes Wilson but how. Not atypical has been the discussion of the two presidents in the New Republic, which was itself born during the Wilson era. Presidents Wilson and Obama share the feature of “technocratic arrogance,” argues Jeffrey Rosen. Rosen says it is no accident that Obama has leaned on a harsh Wilson-era law, the Espionage Act of 1917, to prosecute leakers of defense intelligence. Like Wilson, Obama, we are told, has a penchant for going to extremes, which has manifested itself in the prosecution of even mild offenders. The Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin offers a somewhat more flattering comparison. Obama resembles Wilson in his faith in government, Kazin writes, suggesting that Obama’s twenty-first-century plans to expand domestic government are possible only because Wilson “laid the foundation for the 20th century liberal state.” Without Wilson, there would have been no New Deal, and then no Great Society, and no Obama health-care reform and regulation. Wilson ought to be rated more highly, Kazin argues. As important as Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson, he is “the forgotten president.”

That Wilson laid the foundations for modern presidential policy, foreign and domestic, cannot be denied. Wilson’s predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, waged little wars to gain strategic territory for the United States, whether the territory involved was Cuba, the Philippines or at the Panama Canal. For TR, war was an impulse. Wilson, by contrast, proved the original neocon. He was ready to stake all on a big war if that war would serve a principle—in his instance, the principle of making the world “safe for democracy.” Wilson’s decision to draft hundreds of thousands of Americans and ship them overseas in World War I was so bold a move that many of his predecessors would never have even contemplated it. “Perhaps the greatest foreign army that ever crossed a sea in the history of the world prior to the present war was the Persian army of a million men, which bridged and crossed the Hellespont,” Wilson’s secretary of war, Newton Baker, wrote in wonderment. Persia’s army failed. America’s did not.

Wilson altered foreign policy in another way, by establishing American multilateralism. Whether the framework today is the United Nations or the G-20, the very assumption of the value of that framework can be traced back to Wilson, as John B. Judis has done in The Folly of Empire. Wilson’s own multilateral project, the League of Nations, was an exercise in futility, and most Americans know the story of how, while selling the League to the country on an exhausting railway tour, Wilson fell ill and then suffered a stroke that enfeebled him, putting paid to his dreams of League participation. But Wilson got Americans into the habit of thinking multilaterally, a shift that has proven more profound than the establishment of any individual institution. Harry Truman was a young captain mustering out in the same month that Wilson and the Allies handed a defeated Germany the Treaty of Versailles. Back at home, preparing to use his knowledge of supply chains to start a new life as a haberdasher, Truman watched Wilson launch an impassioned campaign for the League of Nations.

In domestic policy, Wilson left just as strong a mark, signing laws that created many of our modern institutions. Not only did Wilson sanction the income tax, he also backed the credo that Obama and indeed all Democrats sustain today: that taxing the rich more heavily than others performs the necessary work of “equalization” of an out-of-kilter society. Wilson signed into law the Clayton Antitrust Act, our first modern piece of antitrust legislation. And it was Wilson who, with great presidential effort, forced the Senate to confirm his nomination to the Supreme Court of Louis Brandeis, the nation’s most powerful trustbuster. Under Wilson, the Federal Reserve System and the Federal Trade Commission were established, the latter representing the first comprehensive effort by the federal government to regulate commerce.

That Wilson has been forgotten, however, is a more dubious contention. Out of a tactical desperation to eschew any similarity with modern Republicans, Democrats tend to play down the fact that Wilson’s military interventionism in the name of sovereignty or morality resembles that of George H. W. Bush, who defended a Kuwaiti border, or George W. Bush, who also made war not only against terror but also for democracy. But to this day the public ranks Wilson among the top presidents in polls, beside George Washington or Franklin Roosevelt and well ahead of James Madison, John Adams or Ronald Reagan. William Howard Taft, Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge, the presidents who preceded or followed Wilson in office, commonly rate much lower than the former governor of New Jersey. And succeeding presidents of both parties paid great tribute to Wilson. Coolidge, the president in office at Wilson’s death, said that Wilson “made America a new and enlarged influence in the destiny of mankind.” The New Yorker Franklin Roosevelt, who had served as assistant secretary of the navy under Wilson, took it upon himself to raise millions to establish foundations and funds to honor Wilson’s name. Truman, who went on to found the League’s successor, the United Nations, called Wilson “the greatest of the greats.”

SUCH TRIBUTE raises a question: Does the record of the twenty-eighth president actually warrant superstar status? Or was his record more mixed than his fans acknowledge? Wilson’s foreign-policy record itself has been scrutinized and found wanting by European historians, but too rarely subjected to searching examination by American ones. A second and even less examined area is the effect of Wilson’s progressive domestic program, the New Freedom. Both areas are worthy of attention because whether or not today’s politicians drop Wilson’s name, their actions, more often than not, are based on the premise that Wilson is worthy of emulation. A 2009 biography of the president, Woodrow Wilson, by John Milton Cooper, indicates simply that Wilson was a great and remarkable leader, and sunnier than his dour reputation might suggest.

All the more welcome, therefore, is the darker Wilson, by Pulitzer Prize winner A. Scott Berg. Berg, who has chronicled the lives of Maxwell Perkins, Charles Lindbergh and Samuel Goldwyn, seeks to study the president’s “lengthening shadow” over our modern affairs. Indeed, Berg promises a new approach to Wilson, looking at, as the jacket copy says, “not just Wilson the icon—but Wilson the man.” Berg gained access to a valuable trove of newly uncovered material, including descriptions of a little-known operation performed on Wilson at the White House and details from Wilson’s physician, Cary Grayson, from the period when Wilson vainly sought Senate ratification of his League of Nations treaty and suffered multiple strokes. Such valuable facts are marshaled by Berg with the aim, as he put it in a recent interview, of telling the story not only of Wilson’s political odyssey, but also “the twentieth century through his life.”

And a tumultuous life it surely was, starting with its origins during the Civil War era. Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born in 1856 in Staunton, Virginia, the son of a stern Presbyterian minister, Joseph Ruggles Wilson Sr. During the war his family knew privation: short of several staples, Wilson’s charitable mother fed him nightly on soup made out of cowpeas. The sheer carnage of the North-South contest and the sight of blood and wounds captured the child’s attention first. All his life, Berg perceptively notes, Wilson would “gravitate toward women who could both nurse and nurture,” partly because his mother was such a woman, and partly, doubtless, because nurses were the figures who mitigated the suffering of soldiers.

Pullquote: Does the record of the twenty-eighth president actually warrant superstar status? Or was his record more mixed than his fans acknowledge?Image: Essay Types: Book Review