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Rest in peace without victory.

December 28, 2009, 1:51 pm

Let’s start a tdih by turning over our pixels to the first couple paragraphs of John Milton Cooper, Jr.’s new biography Woodrow Wilson:

Each year, in the morning on December 28, a military honor guard carrying the American flag presents a wreath that bears the words “The President.” Accompanying the honor guard are members of the clergy, who carry a cross and say a prayer. The clergy are present because the wreath-laying ceremony takes place in front of a tomb in the Washington National Cathedral. Since teh day is only a week after the winter solstice, the low angle of the morning sun causes bright colors from the stained glass windows to play across the floor of the alcove where the tomb is located, over the stone sarcophagus, and on the words carved on the walls. The alcove contains two flags, the Stars and Stripes and the orange and black-shielded ensign of Princeton University. The wreath laying takes place on the birthday, and at the final resting place, of the thirteenth president of Princeton and the twenty-eighth president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson.

The ceremony and the tomb capture much about this man. The military presence is fitting because Wilson led the nation through World War I. The religious setting is equally fitting because no president impressed people more strongly as a man of faith than Wilson did. His resting place makes him the only president buried inside a church and the only one buried in Washington. The university flag attests to his career in higher education before he entered public life. Wilson remains the only professional academic and the only holder of the Ph.D. degree to become president. The inscriptions on the alcove walls come from his speeches as president and afterward. Wilson made words central to all that he did as a scholar, teacher, educational administrator, and political leader; he was the next to last president to write his own speeches. No other president has combined such varied and divergent elements of learning, eloquence, religion, and war.

My first reaction to Cooper’s book was, why did Knopf use Penguin’s colors for the jacket? Then I realized, it’s because they want Princeton alumni to buy it.

My next, slightly later reaction was, Cooper’s written a very elegant introduction to this book. Granting that he had elements of greatness in him, and a great stage on which to ply his trade, Wilson is nevertheless a tough sell. I mentioned last week I don’t think I would have liked TR—but at least I can see that he’s, in some sense, likable. Wilson strikes one as largely unlikable: spare, stern, reserved; every bit as racist as Roosevelt and a foe of civil liberties to boot. Cooper grants this but argues,

He shared his shortcomings with Abraham Lincoln, who likewise approved massive violations of freedom of speech and the press, and Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner who fathered children by a slave mistress, and Franklin Roosevelt, who approved an even worse violation of civil liberties, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. A consideration of Wilson poses the same ultimate question as does that of those other towering figures in the presidential pantheon: do his sins of omission and commission outweigh the good he did, or do his great words and deeds overshadow his transgressions?

I’ll be interested to see how Cooper proceeds to make the latter case. Going in, I’m considering that Wilson converted late and apparently reluctantly to progressivism, and he was a principal architect of the Versailles treaty, which the US did not sign, and which, as Keynes wrote at the time, utterly failed to make any provision for restoring the economic benefits of the prewar world—a failure that led to the Great Depression and World War II.

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