Woodrow Wilson - Classic or Dud?

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Reading Jean Edward Smith's massive, very entertaining new FDR bio, I'm struck, as I have been repeatedly in the last several years after reading Walter Karp and Gore Vidal's Hollywood, among other things, by what a repellent little prig this man was. By all accounts a most persuasive orator and, for a president, composer of pretty good prose. Repeatedly cited as one of our ten greatest presidents, his record suggests otherwise:

* getting us involved in a rather sordid quasi-war with Mexican guerrillas;

* personally assuring that black Republicans were purged from the federal payroll. When challenged about segregation, he wrote, "It is as far as possible from being a movement against the Negroes. I think if you were hereon the ground you would see, as I seem to see, that it is distinctly to the advantage of the colored people themselves."

* maneuvering, with considerable subtlety, to bring the U.S. into World War I while looking aggrieved. Violating our loudly professed neutrality, we essentially entered the war to assert our right to travel on belligerent ships (i.e. England) and trade with belligerent nations (i.e. England);

* signing the Espionage Act of 1917, which grievously curtailed the reach of the First Amendment during wartime;

* pointedly refusing to pardon onetime presidential rival Eugene V. Debs, arrested for violating the Espionage Act (and Wilson was not one to ever forget a perceived blow to his divine right);

* the invisible hand behind the priggish, quixotic idealism that's defined American foreign policy since 1945;

* the Fourteen Points;

* Nixon's favorite 20th century president.

Pluses: Federal Trace Commission, Federal Reserve, eight-hour work day, supporting women's suffrage (after vehemently opposing it).

Alfred, Lord Sotosyn, Monday, 8 October 2007 01:13 (nine years ago) Permalink

In all his prim glory:

Alfred, Lord Sotosyn, Monday, 8 October 2007 01:13 (nine years ago) Permalink

and what to thread

Ned Raggett, Monday, 8 October 2007 01:18 (nine years ago) Permalink

generally i'd say a dud. read james chace's "1912," pretty decent look at that year's presidential election.

hstencil, Monday, 8 October 2007 01:31 (nine years ago) Permalink

"He kept us out of war"

artdamages, Monday, 8 October 2007 02:12 (nine years ago) Permalink

would like to know more about the federal reserve act.

artdamages, Monday, 8 October 2007 02:13 (nine years ago) Permalink

isn't he the only president to be a phd?

artdamages, Monday, 8 October 2007 02:14 (nine years ago) Permalink

he has a whole lotta shit named after him in and around princeton, NJ. i used to bike & skateboard around the woodrow wilson school of public affairs on campus when i was a teenager.

Eisbaer, Monday, 8 October 2007 02:18 (nine years ago) Permalink

Eisbaer, Monday, 8 October 2007 02:18 (nine years ago) Permalink

after he went out on a date w/his eventual 2nd wife the Washington Post reported "rather than paying attention to the play the President spent the evening entering Mrs. Galt."

artdamages, Monday, 8 October 2007 02:24 (nine years ago) Permalink

he was once president of princeton. hence naming everything after him.

hstencil, Monday, 8 October 2007 02:28 (nine years ago) Permalink

the worst president in history, worse than even W on every score, for all the reasons alfred mentions.

the federal reserve act, as robert la follette said, "legitimized the money trust it was supposed to destroy."

by far the worst blot on his record is the astonishingly extreme suppression of civil liberties during WWI. no president in history weakened the first amendment so much. karp makes the very good point that the main reason for them was that there simply was no good reason for the war; had people been able to criticize it publically, no one would have supported it. wilson's destruction of the progressive movement essentially ended (small-r) republican politics in america, paving the way for the national security state, mccarthyism, and the permanent institutionalizing of corrupt two-party rule. and his stupid blunders at versailles (clemenceau cracked that wilson seemed to believe he was jesus christ) paved the way for WW2.

J.D., Monday, 8 October 2007 02:28 (nine years ago) Permalink

so why did he decide to get involved in the war?

artdamages, Monday, 8 October 2007 02:30 (nine years ago) Permalink

cw sez it was lusitania and the zimmerman telegram, right? thats what i remember from hs textbooks.

artdamages, Monday, 8 October 2007 02:32 (nine years ago) Permalink

He and Teddy Roosevelt couldn't stand each other because they were mirror images: both were fueled by messianic American exceptionalism.

Alfred, Lord Sotosyn, Monday, 8 October 2007 02:34 (nine years ago) Permalink

a taft man myself

artdamages, Monday, 8 October 2007 02:38 (nine years ago) Permalink

that Walter Karp book is seriously great shit, despite his hectoring style.

Alfred, Lord Sotosyn, Monday, 8 October 2007 03:05 (nine years ago) Permalink

karp's book of essays, "buried alive," is also wonderful stuff. it's a shame he never finished the book on the korean war he was working on when he died.

J.D., Monday, 8 October 2007 09:17 (nine years ago) Permalink

explanation for war: one of wilson's advisers came back after visiting europe to sniff out prospects of a peace conference (WW's great dream) and told wilson that the conference could be done but unless he somehow got america involved all *he* could do was "call through a crack in the door." karp's great insight was to read every blunder wilson made in the name of "keeping the peace" (and no one denies that they were blunders, even sympathetic historians) in light of the fact that this brilliant, clever, eloquent but incredibly arrogant and self-centered man undoubtedly wanted to be a Great War President. sound like anyone we know? (apart from the "brilliant, clever, eloquent" bit, of course.)

J.D., Monday, 8 October 2007 09:26 (nine years ago) Permalink

Didn't he invent American Football or something? no wonder Nixon liked him.

I hear he was always writing constitutions for things.

The Real Dirty Vicar, Monday, 8 October 2007 12:16 (nine years ago) Permalink

Didn't he invent American Football or something?

Not sure, but he was an avid baseball fan.

Alfred, Lord Sotosyn, Monday, 8 October 2007 13:11 (nine years ago) Permalink

also: I'm no fan of William Jennings Bryan, but it took guts for him to resign on principle as secretary of state in 1915, in protest over Wilson's insistence on violating U.S. neutrality.

Alfred, Lord Sotosyn, Monday, 8 October 2007 13:12 (nine years ago) Permalink

i understand the very strong case for america staying out of wwi, but i kind of wonder whether the result would have been functionally any better. the americans who wouldn't have died would most likely have been counterbalanced by non-americans who would have died, wouldn't they? and the consequences of the "peace" would have been as bad if not worse. has anyone ever really gamed out the possible ramifications of non-involvement?

tipsy mothra, Monday, 8 October 2007 14:25 (nine years ago) Permalink

i guess you can argue that the u.s. prolonged the war, but that hypothesizes a successful negotiated end that may or may not have really been in view. otoh, it's hard to make the case that the intervention made anything better, which by itself is maybe enough argument against it.

tipsy mothra, Monday, 8 October 2007 14:37 (nine years ago) Permalink

well, the Central Powers knew that once America entered the war that they (the CP) would eventually lose; as a result they increased submarine warfare, which wrecked havoc on the Brits' supply lines.

Alfred, Lord Sotosyn, Monday, 8 October 2007 15:12 (nine years ago) Permalink

Germany could not have won anyway, given the range of resources against them, and their shock offensive in 1918 had crested even before the US troops started arriving. They might have got a better peace deal if they had hung on into 1919 (when US troops would have been so predominant that Wilson could basically have dictated the peace, overruling British and French objections), so maybe the actual peace deal that came up was not so different from what you would have had if the French and British had defeated Germany on their own.

The Real Dirty Vicar, Monday, 8 October 2007 15:50 (nine years ago) Permalink

Another side issue: who was more repellent - Wilson or Henry Cabot Lodge?

Alfred, Lord Sotosyn, Monday, 8 October 2007 15:54 (nine years ago) Permalink

three weeks pass...

the worst president in history

Whaddya know, Jonah Goldberg agrees

Alfred, Lord Sotosyn, Wednesday, 31 October 2007 01:51 (nine years ago) Permalink

I bought 1912 and Holywood based on this thread. Edmund Morris' Roosevelt books are ripping yarns.

caek, Wednesday, 31 October 2007 02:35 (nine years ago) Permalink

one year passes...

omar little, Wednesday, 19 November 2008 23:17 (eight years ago) Permalink

omar little, Thursday, 20 November 2008 00:42 (eight years ago) Permalink

Besides his other offenses, friend Woodrow had gnarly teeth?!?

Alfred, Lord Sotosyn, Thursday, 20 November 2008 00:55 (eight years ago) Permalink

Wilson had his good points. He firmly believed that people should determine their own government. But he caved in at the end of the treaty negotiations in 1919 and let Clemenceau have his way. So, he is docked points on that one.

When he entered WWI, he formed the most despotic, propagandistic, autocratic, lying, conniving government machinery the USA has ever endured. Resistance to Wilsonian policy was seen as ipso facto treason. You were either with him or a scumbag worthy of long imprisonment or vigilante lynching. See Eugene Debs, IWW.

Wilson gave high ideals a bad name.

Aimless, Thursday, 20 November 2008 01:28 (eight years ago) Permalink

He firmly believed that people should determine their own government.

Which is why he manipulated us into provoking a conflict with Mexico (and nearly succeeding) and helped Clemenceau and Lloyd George carve the Middle East into the divisions that have brought so much tranquility in the last 90 years.

Alfred, Lord Sotosyn, Thursday, 20 November 2008 01:32 (eight years ago) Permalink

two months pass...

among America's greatest 20th-century fascists, makes Joe McCarthy look like a piker. (Nixon love makes perfect sense)

Dr Morbius, Thursday, 5 February 2009 17:02 (eight years ago) Permalink

one year passes...

I'm reading Hollywood at the moment. Good stuff so far.

I'm sure this story is familiar to the usual suspects on this thread, but for anyone else, this NYRB article is a nice overview of Debs vs. Wilson during/after the war.

PDF: http://www.mediafire.com/?yotlmnz32kq

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22800
Justice Holmes and the 'Splendid Prisoner'
By Anthony Lewis
Democracy's Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent
by Ernest Freeberg

Harvard University Press, 380 pp., $29.95

...Harding commuted Debs's sentence effective Christmas Day 1921. When he walked out of the prison, Debs was cheered by most of the two thousand inmates, who had been given permission by Zerbst to press against the windows. Then Debs got on a train to Washington to see Harding—at the President's invitation!

The visit to the Oval Office lasted thirty minutes. No one disclosed what was said, except that Harding greeted Debs by saying, "I have heard so damned much about you, Mr. Debs, that I am now very glad to meet you personally." Harding went on to release most of the other political prisoners, and his postmaster general ended the Wilson administration's bans on left-wing journals.

It is an extraordinary story. A pacifist is imprisoned for a vague speech in wartime, and a supposedly liberal president refuses to release him when the war is over. A conservative successor then quickly frees him, and rolls back other repressions imposed by Woodrow Wilson. Public opinion, at first so antagonistic toward Debs, moves under the impact of the pardon campaign to more sympathy for him and for tolerance of dissenting speech in general. H.L. Mencken scoffed at Debs's pacifism and his "Marxian rumble-bumble." But Mencken said:

Is his release denounced by The New York Times, the Rotary Clubs and the idiots who seem to run the American Legion? Then it is precisely because he is fair, polite, independent, brave, honest and a gentleman.

caek, Friday, 2 April 2010 11:57 (seven years ago) Permalink

I just finished this splendid biography, which doesn't stint on the man's frustrating compromises. At any rate, I'm prepared to give him credit for the progressive achievements of his first two years.

A total douchebag in his last two years, though (Hollywood is very good – and accurate – on this).

filling the medicare donut hole with the semen of liberal (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Friday, 2 April 2010 13:12 (seven years ago) Permalink

two weeks pass...

He firmly believed that people should determine their own government.

well, as long as they were white Europeans anyway. he didn't do squat from anyone in the Middle East, Asia or Africa.

the return of the Great White Douche (Eisbaer), Thursday, 22 April 2010 02:50 (seven years ago) Permalink

six months pass...

alfred, are you watching boardwalk empire?

caek, Tuesday, 9 November 2010 20:40 (six years ago) Permalink

No. Should I?

otherwise, and twat (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Tuesday, 9 November 2010 21:05 (six years ago) Permalink

it's not great. i wouldn't necessarily make an effort. acting is pretty weak/hampered by miscasting most of the character drama is a bit rubbish. the premise is politically quite interesting, but it's nowhere near as well handled as, say, deadwood.

anyway, the latest episode was partly set at the 1920 GOP convention and featured cameos by harding and his wife. one of our heros is the atlantic city treasurer and kingmaker for the nj delegation, and meets harding and horsetrades with the Ohio bosses. the wife mentioned to him that her fortune teller predicted harding is going to die while president, which made me think of hollywood (and wonder if they'd pinched that from vidal's fictionalization or whether it really happened).

not clear if this grander political canvas is going to become a bigger part of the show (which has mostly been local bootlegging so far). harry daugherty is played by christopher mcdonald, which makes me think he may appear again.

caek, Tuesday, 9 November 2010 21:26 (six years ago) Permalink

two months pass...

went to Wilson's end-of-life home in DC yesterday. The guide was kind of forthright on his being "diminished" in last 17 months of his presidency. Otherwise enjoyed seeing his piano, Victrola and kangaroo-fur coat.

kind of shrill and very self-righteous (Dr Morbius), Monday, 17 January 2011 13:53 (six years ago) Permalink

One of the surprises I've learned: Wilson liked sex.

Gus Van Sotosyn (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Monday, 17 January 2011 13:53 (six years ago) Permalink

yeah, even the house's 15-minute video mentioned an affair he had late in his first marriage.

kind of shrill and very self-righteous (Dr Morbius), Monday, 17 January 2011 13:55 (six years ago) Permalink

one year passes...

Not sophisticated, but Frum's speculations are worth a read. I too wish Charles Evans Hughes had beaten Wilson.

Exile in lolville (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Monday, 20 February 2012 18:51 (five years ago) Permalink

one year passes...

ol' woody was the first pres to give press conferences! they sound hilariously stilted.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21761429

(The Other) J.D. (J.D.), Friday, 15 March 2013 06:52 (four years ago) Permalink

He could be witty, however. "I am not as big a fool as I look, and if you will just go on the assumption that I am not a fool, it would correct a good many news items," he remarked at one press conference in 1914.

oh, burn!

(The Other) J.D. (J.D.), Friday, 15 March 2013 06:52 (four years ago) Permalink

Chris Hayes reminded people over Twitter last month that, despite conservative efforts to the contrary, the left hasn't considered Woody a hero in years.

the little prince of inane false binary hype (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Friday, 15 March 2013 12:14 (four years ago) Permalink

two months pass...

Obama is like Wilson, Michael Kazin argues, because he's a good speaker and is a Democrat and stuff.

A deeper shade of lol (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Saturday, 8 June 2013 18:45 (three years ago) Permalink

tbh obama seems more like wilson these days than ever

(The Other) J.D. (J.D.), Saturday, 8 June 2013 19:17 (three years ago) Permalink

two months pass...

Ahead of A. Scott Berg's new bio, Jill Lepore gives him the New Yorker treatment.

first I think it's time I kick a little verse! (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Thursday, 5 September 2013 21:20 (three years ago) Permalink

one month passes...

anyone read the new bio?

(The Other) J.D. (J.D.), Monday, 4 November 2013 22:34 (three years ago) Permalink

oh boy did I! I finished it Saturday.

the objections to Drake from non-REAL HIPHOP people (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Monday, 4 November 2013 22:40 (three years ago) Permalink

how the hell I wrote two thousand words I dunno; the asshole deserves it, I guess.

the objections to Drake from non-REAL HIPHOP people (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Monday, 4 November 2013 22:41 (three years ago) Permalink

apropos of nothing, Alfred, what's the best book on FDR's presidency?

eclectic husbandry (Dr Morbius), Monday, 4 November 2013 22:45 (three years ago) Permalink

The best single volume one is H.W. Brands' A Traitor to His Class. The excellent recent Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time analyzes the degree to which the New Deal required the support of Southern racists who needed federal boodle.

The one with the best prose is Arthur Schlesinger, Jr's, surprisingly, with little of the sycophancy he'd demonstrate as the Kennedy court intellectual.

the objections to Drake from non-REAL HIPHOP people (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Monday, 4 November 2013 22:49 (three years ago) Permalink

thank you

I am shocked to learn Princeton had a libidinous prez btw

eclectic husbandry (Dr Morbius), Monday, 4 November 2013 22:52 (three years ago) Permalink

to be honest I can understand the attraction. Must be the lantern jaw.

the objections to Drake from non-REAL HIPHOP people (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Monday, 4 November 2013 22:57 (three years ago) Permalink

excellent piece (as usual), alfred: i'm impressed that you could stomach wilson's company for two biographies!

as long as we're doing book recommendations, i'd love to see your picks for the best books on 20th century u.s. history.

(The Other) J.D. (J.D.), Monday, 4 November 2013 23:13 (three years ago) Permalink

You want'em here or in that other thread?

the objections to Drake from non-REAL HIPHOP people (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Monday, 4 November 2013 23:14 (three years ago) Permalink

and thanks!

the objections to Drake from non-REAL HIPHOP people (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Monday, 4 November 2013 23:14 (three years ago) Permalink

what other thread?

caek, Monday, 4 November 2013 23:19 (three years ago) Permalink

J.D. recently started a thread about our formative books or something.

the objections to Drake from non-REAL HIPHOP people (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Monday, 4 November 2013 23:25 (three years ago) Permalink

here is fine, i can't seem to find that other thread right now.

(The Other) J.D. (J.D.), Monday, 4 November 2013 23:43 (three years ago) Permalink

A few. I cheated a bit.

Gore Vidal - Narratives of Empire
Edmund Wilson - Patriotic Gore
Taylor Branch - The King Years
Larzer Ziff - The American 1890's: Life and Times of a Lost Generation
Robert A. Caro - LBJ stuff
Amy Kaplan - The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture
Walter Karp - The Politics of War
William Appleman Williams - The Tragedy of American Diplomacy
Henry Adams - The Education of...
Edmund Morris - Theodore Rex
John Carlos Rowe - Literary Culture and U.S. Imperialism
Jonathan Schell - The Time of Illusion
Henry James - The American Scene
Garry Wills - Nixon Agonistes
Joan Didion - Political Fictions
Gary May - Bending Towards Justice

the objections to Drake from non-REAL HIPHOP people (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Tuesday, 5 November 2013 00:09 (three years ago) Permalink

thanks! nice list, a few that would be on my own and a few i've been meaning to get around to (taylor branch's king books, adams's 'education').

(The Other) J.D. (J.D.), Tuesday, 5 November 2013 19:23 (three years ago) Permalink

two years pass...

waiting for the right to chortle over the supposed deliciousness of left wingers taking on Woody's reputation.

The burrito of ennui (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Thursday, 19 November 2015 19:53 (one year ago) Permalink

i once found myself quite by accident in staunton, virginia, wilson's birthplace. i went to the W.W. museum and it was kind of a whitewash (pun not really intended). the guy held some views and did some things that seem rather progressive, and other views/things that seem unconscionably retrograde. i'm not sure it's right to say--as some have--that his racism was unexceptional for the time. i actually think that even among his own milieu he was a bit outspoken in his racist attitudes.

i'm not sure what taking his name off of anything will accomplish, but it's not like people are in any danger of forgetting woodrow wilson, so i don't mind it. for the same reason i didn't mind that the DGA took D.W. Griffith's name off of their yearly prize, which some people reacted to like it was the end of the world.

wizzz! (amateurist), Thursday, 19 November 2015 19:54 (one year ago) Permalink

i don't think any ideological faction would really be comfortable claiming the entirety of wilson's legacy, which is complex and very mixed.

wizzz! (amateurist), Thursday, 19 November 2015 19:54 (one year ago) Permalink

He resegregated the federal government, which is worse than what Grover Cleveland ever did re civil rights.

I think one of those demands is absurd. "The left" has known about Wilson's contempt for civil liberties and civil rights for years.

The burrito of ennui (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Thursday, 19 November 2015 19:55 (one year ago) Permalink

He resegregated the federal government, which is worse than what Grover Cleveland ever did re civil rights.

yeah, that's what i mean. not only was his racism fairly virulent even among his class, but he had a position from which he could do a lot of damage. and he did.

that said, it does seem to me that there are probably lots of more important and substantive things to protest than the name of a building or college... not just matters of racial justice (mass incarceration, police abuse, unequal employment and housing opportunities) but also some global matters that we as americans are complicit in (like drone strikes, environmental collapse). i guess you could say that all these things go together, somehow, and to protest one thing does not mean you can't protest another. but it does seem to me that a lot of righteous anger is being focused on what in the grand scheme of things seem like trivial matters. obviously a lot of folks don't agree w/ me on that.

wizzz! (amateurist), Thursday, 19 November 2015 19:58 (one year ago) Permalink

fucking hate woodrow wilson. if nixon wasn't literally guilty of treason, i'd rank him worse than nixon. on the other hand, the idea of "making the world safe for democracy" is probably more geopolitically astute than any us president since 1979. :(

rushomancy, Thursday, 19 November 2015 21:39 (one year ago) Permalink

one year passes...

Chas Pierce on the 100th anniv of the current American Empire

http://www.esquire.com/news-politics/politics/news/a53792/american-empire-bob-lafollette-wilson/

Supercreditor (Dr Morbius), Saturday, 11 March 2017 13:37 (two months ago) Permalink


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