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Some notes on Woodrow Wilson and the underappreciated harms Presidents can do.

June 22, 2012, 5:06 pm

Regular readers will know we frequently give time and attention to the best of presidents, with special regard to the underrated Franklin Roosevelt. But perhaps we should give equal time to the bad presidents whose badness goes insufficiently remarked – not just the mediocre presidents, but those whose harms go underappreciated.

Entirely coincidentally, I have an essay in the current Reviews in American History on Woodrow Wilson, apropos Cooper’s biography. Here’s the beginning of the essay, for the record:

In the 1912 election, the Democrats gained sixty-one seats to increase their majority in the House of Representatives and seven seats to get a majority in the Senate. Yet their presidential candidate, Woodrow Wilson, won fewer votes than William Jennings Bryan had in 1908, 1900, or 1896. Wilson also underperformed Democrats in Massachusetts, Ohio, Illinois, and elsewhere, becoming president only by the grace of God, or Theodore Roosevelt. Having squeaked into office, Wilson took a measured approach to his party’s platform—he had described himself as “a Progressive with the brakes on”—and probably signed fewer progressive laws than Roosevelt would have. Wilson waged war with a surpassing and unnecessary carelessness for Americans’ civil liberties and, by his intransigence, undermined his peaceable internationalism, in whose cause he lied to Congress. Even if it was not entirely his fault that the latter part of his presidency left the country in chaos owing to his mental incapacity, his inability to recognize his sad unfitness for office owed partly to his certainty of his own indispensability. Which is all to say that, even on the terms of his time, he escaped success; judging by our own standards we would wish additionally to count against him his tardiness in endorsing woman suffrage and the regulation of child labor, as well as his importation of racial segregation to the federal government. In short, on the merits, there is little cause to commend Wilson’s record—and even less because he had so much intelligence and ability. Wilson is a familiar character to academics and especially to historians: arrogant in his knowledge of administrations past and foreign, he thought he could do as well as a leader, not recognizing that there is a talent to manage- ment that has more to do with temperament than with comprehension. He took advice sparingly and made his own mistakes.

Yet Wilson has never lacked admirers. Maybe it is too much to call his sympathizers a “cult,” as Thomas A. Bailey did, or to say that Wilson’s fellow professors cover his misdeeds “as policemen do for policemen who go wrong,” as Arthur Hadley did. But it is not wrong to note that there is something enduringly academic about his appeal: the two causes Wilson promoted—pacific American internationalism and the adoption of parliamentary government in the U.S.—were and remain nonstarters and the kind of impracticalities that only intellectuals could adore.

The biographer of Wilson thus faces a challenge: how to make compelling an unattractive character who chalked up considerable failures? John Milton Cooper, Jr.’s, solution is to keep up a brisk narrative pace, concede that Wilson fell short by modern lights, and to make the best case for Wilson’s modest accomplishments while letting the defeats speak for themselves.

The whole thing is here, and here in pdf, for those with subscriptions.

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