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

BUT HE entered a new one. Now it would be Woodrow Wilson in the nation’s service. New Jersey politics of the period was a jungle of interest groups and insiders. But Wilson did not run with the pack. He ensured that it ran after him. Presenting his lack of political experience as an advantage, Wilson ran as a nonpolitician with the capacity to break corruption. The Princeton man’s speechifying entranced New Jersey party operators, who found the reformer refreshing. “Attempting none of the cheap ‘plays’ of the old campaign orator,” wrote a state lawmaker who became a fan, James Tumulty, “he impressively proceeded with this thrilling speech.” Wilson’s message at a state Democratic convention deeply impressed the Jersey cynics as well: “The future,” Wilson said, “is not for parties ‘playing politics’ but for measures conceived in the largest spirit.”

In 1910, Wilson won election as governor, a post in which he quickly discovered his inner progressive. His first move was to introduce a measure known as the Geran bill that required the direct elections of candidates in primaries rather than leaving the choice of men to county and state conventions. The bill became law the following April. Other measures were soon adopted. Joining Republican reformers, he made workers’ compensation New Jersey law, and established state oversight of transportation and utilities. A corrupt-practices law targeted electoral bribery and fraud. The old insiders marveled. There seemed to be nothing that Governor Wilson could not accomplish. His New Jersey work quickly earned the attention of national progressives, including the great activist against the railroad trusts, attorney Louis Brandeis, who journeyed to Sea Girt to visit with the governor in the summer of 1912. Brandeis educated Wilson on what he called “the curse of bigness,” the case that the size of large companies alone damaged the general welfare. Shrewder than anyone expected at charming the West, Wilson’s courtship of Texas was complete when he charmed Edward Mandell House (often known as “Colonel House”), the heir to a Texas fortune and a man of whom peers said “he has the entire state of Texas in his vest pocket.”

As Berg sketches it, Wilson’s ascent to the presidency was remarkably smooth. Wilson was a lucky fellow: the nation’s most famous progressive leader, former president Roosevelt, decided to create his own Bull Moose Party, and targeted his former protégé, President William Howard Taft. Wilson watched Taft and Roosevelt tussle with each other while he looked on serenely for an opening. In 1911, Roosevelt had written in Outlook magazine that he nursed concerns about the trust-busting he himself periodically championed: “Nothing of importance is gained by breaking up a huge interstate and international industrial organization that has not offended otherwise than by its size.” This softening was all that Wilson required. Wilson ran for president as a high-minded antitrust hawk, and fate favored his chances. In the same way that H. Ross Perot’s decision to run for president in 1992 against fellow conservative George H. W. Bush created an opportunity for another legally oriented professor and governor, Bill Clinton of Arkansas, the progressives’ split in 1912 worked for Wilson. The election went four ways, with the resolute socialist candidate, Eugene Debs, taking 6 percent of the vote, the Republican Taft taking 23 percent and Theodore Roosevelt claiming 27.4 percent. Wilson therefore won with a plurality of 41.8 percent.

At this point one might ask: Was the university president really ready to assume the presidency? Wilson’s 41.8 percent was the narrowest mandate any new president has enjoyed since then. It was narrower even than Bill Clinton’s slender 1992 plurality, which stood at 43 percent. For an executive who believed that his power base was the people, that fact must have been profoundly discomfiting. What’s more, the national scene that was the playground of a Roosevelt or a Taft was brand new to Wilson. As he moved into the White House, Wilson’s health already troubled him. He suffered from hypertension and was in the habit of pumping his stomach to siphon out gastric acid. When physician Cary Grayson demanded that Wilson halt this weird practice, the patient, as he always did to those closest around him, lashed out, calling Grayson a “therapeutic nihilist”—and then hired Grayson as chief White House physician. In reviewing the Grayson papers, Berg shows that when Wilson made Grayson White House doctor, he expected Grayson to give his chronic stomach disorder the same attention that Colonel House or Joe Tumulty, now in the Wilson entourage, might dedicate to foreign or domestic policy. His own importance was as significant as the welfare of the country. Grayson’s reports of his patient convey a sense of an autocrat who had already internalized a sense of his authority over the entire globe, practically declaring, “The world, c’est moi.” Wilson categorized all his troubles, whether troubles of state or health, in the same way: he referred to his gastric disorders as “turmoil in Central America” or “disturbances in the equatorial regions.”

IN 1913, THE new president could take comfort in two facts. The first was that the progressive train itself was moving forward: ratification of amendments to create the income tax, to get women the vote and to create a modern central bank were in progress or had already occurred. All a president need do was play the role of the statesman Wilson had described to Ellen, seat himself at the head of the train and claim victory. This Wilson did, with the distinctions between his own progressivism and Theodore Roosevelt’s fading to nothing. Wilson surrounded himself with like-minded men, including Brandeis. He also hired a brilliant treasury secretary, William McAdoo. He managed to overcome, at least momentarily, a natural aversion to Congress and, stunningly, traveled to the Hill to pitch his New Freedom program before lawmakers, the first president to do so since John Adams. Wilson’s wife was also ill, and the Wilsons and their three daughters enjoyed an active social life. Before long McAdoo, a distinguished widower, would court and win the hand of Wilson’s daughter Eleanor, an event that only reinforced the clubbish aspect of the president’s inner circle. The second advantage was that the area Wilson liked least, foreign policy, did not seem particularly significant. “It would be the irony of fate,” Wilson said, “if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs.”

It did. Just sixteen months after Wilson assumed office, in a period when Wilson was distracted by Ellen’s illness, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo. By August 1914, Wilson was convinced that the United States could stay neutral: “We must be impartial in thought as well as in action, must put a curb upon our sentiments as well as upon every transaction that might be construed as a preference of one party to the struggle before another.” Just days later, Wilson’s wife died. Always uxorious, the president nearly died from grief after his wife’s passing. “God has stricken me almost beyond what I can bear,” he wrote around the time of Ellen’s death. Later, in mourning and as Germany invaded France and Belgium, Wilson wrote that the European war distracted him. “In God’s gracious arrangement of things I have little time to think about myself.” Berg, with harsh accuracy, notes of the self-centered Wilson that “with the destruction of his universe, he found strength in the collapse of the world.” Berg goes on to trace the familiar story that follows: Wilson did lead the United States in entering the war, did ship those millions overseas, did lead the nation in sustaining hundreds of thousands of casualties, and crafted a peace plan on the principles of democracy and self-determination.

Berg paints all this well, capturing the president’s agonies at his wife’s death. Even after remarriage, Wilson kept a flashlight on his stand at night, shining it on a pastel portrait of Ellen whenever he felt distress. Berg’s coverage of Wilson’s illnesses, including a difficult recovery from an operation that foreshadowed his stroke, is excellent. The presidency aged men terribly in those days, a smoke-filled era that knew no statin drugs, no angiograms and no antibiotics. Wilson was no exception, and Berg’s camera moves close in to show the tension in Wilson’s neck that signaled circulatory weakness. In Berg’s picture, one can almost detect the hardening of the presidential arteries.

Berg likewise skillfully conveys the effect of Wilson’s temperament and plans upon the course of the war. After first staunchly opposing entry, and even campaigning on staying out in 1916, Wilson in the end did jump in. As is so often the case with presidents, the challenge of the crisis moved Wilson to respond instinctually, rather than intellectually. Wilson’s instinctual response was religious: America became the “Christ’s Army” he had described in his early writings. The president who had so boldly favored freedom abroad that he placed the word in the title of his program now behaved in remarkably cavalier fashion when it came to the freedoms of others at home. Over the course of the war Wilson ran roughshod over the civil rights of war skeptics. Debs’s campaigning against the war may have been wrong, but Wilson seemed to derive a special joy from keeping his old political opponent behind bars.

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