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woodrow wilson

18 october 2008

Woodrow Wilson was an anomaly among American presidents of his own or any other era. He was a Democrat both preceded and followed by three Republicans, the only Southerner to be elected President between James K. Polk and Lyndon Johnson. He earned a Ph.D. He hadn't come up through the rank-and-file of party politics, as even his silver-spoon rival Theodore Roosevelt had to a great extent. In fact, Wilson was markedly poorer and from a lower socioeconomic class than most of the the Presidents around him, as the son of an impecunious preacher; he rose through academia on his merits, not his connections. He was also the last President to be single at any point in his term, and the last to remarry while in the White House.

In his brisk, witty contribution to the Times Books American Presidents series, H.W. Brands sweeps through Wilson's early career to concentrate on his Presidency, which was also anomalous. Wilson was a true outsider to Washington. Though his dissertation at Johns Hopkins was a study of the American Congress, he hadn't even traveled from Baltimore down to D.C. to observe the actual Congress at work while he was writing it. The sum total of his political experience before becoming President was two years as governor of New Jersey, where he was as much an outsider in boss-powered Trenton as he would be in log-rolling Washington.

And one senses from Brands's work that Wilson was never very popular, either. His was not a broad-based outsider appeal like that of his Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan. Rather, Wilson came to the White House along lines similar to those of Grover Cleveland or Jimmy Carter: he was elected because he had few links to Democratic machine politics, because, not in spite of, his lack of national political experience and popular appeal.

Which just goes to show that the resumé isn't always the most important part of a candidate's makeup. Wilson's understanding of American government may have been literally academic, but his ideals arrived in Washington at a very fruitful moment. His progressive agenda was in some ways continuous with that of Roosevelt. But where TR saw the Presidency as a pulpit, Wilson saw it as a front-bench seat in Parliament; WW fancied himself more as a prime minister than as a head of state (a self-image later symbolized in his attending the post-WWI peace conference as a peer of Lloyd George and Clemenceau, a move that now seems natural but was much-criticized in 1919 as infra dig for the American head of state). Wilson shepherded legislation through Congress, delighted in speaking to joint sessions (as no President had done for over a century), and at the same time increased the power of the Executive through the establishment of regulatory commissions (notably the Federal Trade Commission). His lack of experience meant that he didn't see why certain things couldn't be done; he just did them.

Even given his energetic successes in his first term, Wilson barely won re-election in 1916. My grandmother used to tell me about the suspense that held the nation in the days after that Election Day, when it first seemed that Republican Charles Evans Hughes (her favorite) had prevailed, until with Florida-2000-like uncertainty the state of California tipped into the Wilson column.

The second Wilson administration was marked by tremendous expansion of American power and tremendous personal cost for Wilson. As the major broker of the end of the first World War, Wilson became the leading statesman on the planet; for the first time one could probably say that an American President was what we now take for granted: the most powerful person in the world. But though he steered the entire continent of Europe toward the notion of international government, he could not steer a newly-elected Republican Congress in that direction. In the process of fighting for the League of Nations, Wilson broke down, and in a well-known but still bizarre episode, spent over a year virtually bedridden and unable to govern. The "man behind the curtain" of the late Wilson years was a woman, Edith Bolling Galt, Wilson's wife of a few years and perhaps the most powerful woman in American history.

Though he had more schooling than any other American President, Wilson was essentially an autodidact. (Brands relates Wilson's intellectual independence to his possible dyslexia, which made him a uniquely self-paced and self-directed learner.) He was also (like Carter) profoundly religious, in a liberal evangelical tradition that stressed community and cooperation (though Wilson was the complete opposite of Carter on issues of racial justice). The motives that drew the United States into the World War were certainly grey ones (profiteering, as much as peacemaking, was at stake). But one would be hard-pressed to call Wilson a hypocrite or a cynic. When he wanted to make the world safe for democracy and when he called for "a common standard of right and privilege for all peoples and nations" (Brands 96), he wasn't engaging in a smokescreen for realpolitik, as one would certainly suspect of many of his Presidential peers, from McKinley and TR through Nixon and George W. Bush. Wilson followed his own drummer – and in the process persuaded much of the rest of the world to follow him.

Brands, H.W. Woodrow Wilson. New York: Times Books, 2003.