Debating the sins and virtues of Woodrow Wilson

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You know that politics is getting strange when people start attacking a president who has been dead for 86 years.

In recent weeks, TV commentator Glenn Beck and syndicated columnist George Will have exhumed the ghost of Woodrow Wilson, our 28th president, to explain the sins of the Barack Obama, our 44th.  And what was Wilson’s crime, according to Beck and Will? He was too progressive, or more to the point, he was the father of presidential progressivism in the United States.

Pardon me, but I find this situation too ironic to pass up. I am reading a Wilson biography by John Milton Cooper Jr., a history professor and Wilson expert at the University of Wisconsin. When I have mentioned the book to friends, their first reaction has been: “Wilson? Wasn’t he a segregationist?” In their eyes, Wilson wasn’t the philosophical father of our current president; he was a man who would not have let Obama enter the front door of the White House.

I have to divulge here that I have long had an interest in Wilson, who was a native of Staunton. His first wife, Ellen, was from my hometown, Rome, Ga. Mrs. Wilson was buired there when she died in 1914, less than two years after the Wilsons entered the White House. My grandmother remembered seeing the funeral procession pass through the main street of town where every storefront was draped in black.

Wilson generally is regarded by historians as one of the 10 greatest presidents of U.S. history.  His decision to declare war on Germany assured an Allied victory in World War I and his Fourteen Points were hailed as a foundation for permanent peace. But his triumph became tragedy. He suffered a stroke in 1919 while trying to drum up U.S. support for a proposed League of Nations and was an invalid for the rest of his life. Wilson received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1920, but the U.S. never ratified the League of Nations.

Another side of Wilson’s presidency has become more widely known in recent decades. He received a substantial number of African-Americans votes in his first election, 1912, but he did little to repay their support. As first native of the South elected since Zachary Taylor,  Wilson brought a number of Southern Democrats to Washington. In their home states, Jim Crow laws were stripping African-Americans of their rights. The president did not protest when agencies became segregated and many African-Americans were not reappointed to posts they had held for years.

Perhaps most damning was the fact that Wilson held a private screening of “The Birth of a Nation” at the White House despite the protests of African-American leaders. The D.W. Griffith movie, considered a masterpiece for its cinematic techniques, glorifies the Old South and the Ku Klux Klan while depicting Reconstruction as a time of rampant corruption.

In a review of Cooper’s biography, Yale historian Beverly Gage says Wilson was “the most reactionary president of the 20th century.”  But that is not what Beck and Will are concerned about. Pointing to the establishment of the Federal Reserve and the federal income tax during Wilson’s tenure, Beck claims Wilson planted the seeds of Socialism in the U.S. government. Will’s complaint against Wilson concerns his academic mindset. Wilson, a former president of Princeton University, thought government was science that it should be practiced by disinterested experts, the columnist says. He believes that “Professor Obama” is trying to follow Wilson’s lead, fashioning comprehensive government solutions to problems like health care.

So was Wilson a reactionary or a closet Socialist? Was he neither or was he both?  Despite his poor record on civil rights, Wilson appointed the first Jew to the Supreme Court, Louis Brandeis.
Likewise, Wilson pursued an ambitious legislative agenda, but he was criticized as being timid by Republican Theodore Roosevelt, the founder of the short-lived Progressive Party.

Perhaps, Wilson is like another Virginia-born president, Thomas Jefferson, whom we have never figured out.


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