I knew very little about “Tommy” Woodrow Wilson. I knew that he had been born in Staunton, Virginia, in the Shenandoah and was president during World War I. I knew that he was often listed among the eight or 10 best presidents, though I was vague about why. I see him now as one of the unlikeliest men ever to rise to presidency as well as a tragic figure.
He was a bookish academic, not a politician, but he nevertheless had a way of reaching ordinary Americans with language. There are no recordings of his speeches, so we can only imagine how this rather priggish son-of-a-preacherman and president of Princeton spoke so that the working class heard and felt his message. He became famous through his oratory, not unlike a junior (and rather priggish) senator from Illinois did in 2004.
He was a Democrat. He happened to be a Democrat and president of that most undemocratic “gentleman’s club,” Princeton University in New Jersey, in 1910, which means he was a member of an “out” party that hadn’t held power in that state in many years and he was increasingly on the outs with the “old boys” at Princeton, who didn’t like their privileges monkeyed with. The corrupt boss of New Jersey Democrats, “Sugar Jim” Smith, suggested that Wilson should run for governor in 1910 because Sugar Jim thought the college professor would be a patsy, easy to control, a willing puppet. Wilson not only won the race for governor – his first-ever political contest – but he became Sugar Jim’s worst nightmare: an upstanding, incorruptible, reformist governor. Two years later, he was elected President of the United States in a landslide, beating both incumbent William Howard Taft and Bull Mooser Teddy Roosevelt.
Has anyone more unlikely ever risen that fast in American politics? Well, I can think of one other: Barack Obama.
Wilson was more of a democratic populist than Barack Obama. Wilson saw clearly the rapacious appetite of corporations as a threat to our republic, and he fought those behemoths more effectively than any president in our history. (Obama, on the other hand, has been a corporate tool, or their chump, and to some of us, it appears that the coup is pretty much complete. Wall Street rules.)
Can’t help noticing, too, the similarities in the national paranoia of 1918 and our own since 2001 – fear of foreigners, a willingness to warp constitutional rights into various forms of domestic spying and “anti-sedition” laws, the rise of a toxic racism. Nothing in our political economy is ever new, just recycled in more concentrated and innovative forms.
Wilson finished his presidency a broken man. He had suffered several strokes, mostly in secret. His wife, his doctor, and a couple of close aides literally conspired to keep his true condition a secret. Berg suggests that he may even have been suffering from the onset of dementia. He was often incoherent, driven a little mad by Senate Republicans who refused to confirm the peace treaty he had spent six months in France hammering out, the treaty that included the formation of the League of Nations. Well in advance of the Treaty of Versailles, the Republicans had literally plotted to vote down whatever peace Wilson might sign.
He achieved massive reforms in his first term and really led the combined nations in winning World War I in his second. In the first months of his first term, with a cooperative Democratic Congress, he slashed tariff rates that protected monopolies, passed the first permanent federal income tax, created the Federal Reserve system to end the bank panics that continually ravaged the American economy, bolstered antitrust laws, discouraged child labor, and inaugurated the eight-hour day and workers’ compensation. After the Republicans took back Congress, they delighted in frustrating his every initiative and going off on their own blue-nosed crusades. In his last days in office Wilson vetoed the Volstead Act -- Prohibition -- that grand scheme of a new Republican majority in Congress to make Americans stop drinking, and the Republicans promptly overrode his veto in a matter of hours.
On the anti-progressive side, Wilson was an out-and-out racist, he stood in the way of woman suffrage, he tolerated the massive arrests of immigrants and “radicals” during the notorious “Palmer raids” of 1919, the moment at which a young psychopath named J. Edgar Hoover got his first taste of the exhilarations provided by “official” terror.
The last I heard, Leonardo DiCaprio was planning to produce and possibly star in the film adaptation of Berg's biography. DiCaprio as Woodrow Wilson? Hmmm. I can’t exactly envision it. Isn’t Daniel Day-Lewis available?