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The Do-Gooder

The Mexican Revolution was not Woodrow Wilson’s finest hour. After a coup in 1913, Wilson tried and failed to make common cause with the so-called constitutional rebel leader, Venustiano Carranza. The President then exploited a minor incident and seized the Caribbean port of Veracruz, without gaining Congressional authorization first or political advantage later. When the able but treacherous Pancho Villa then turned on Carranza, Wilson foolishly supported the schismatic rebel, who went on to murder a slew of Americans, provoking a second intervention. Ultimately Wilson recognized a new government led by Carranza, whom he had previously tried to sideline.

An equally damning portrait can be sketched of Wilson’s management of European affairs. When the guns of August began to thunder in 1914, Wilson promoted an untenable stance of strict neutrality while failing to gird the country for war. After America joined the conflict, the Wilson administration turned repressive at home, censoring and jailing critics. He turned the midterm elections of 1918 into a referendum on his foreign policy and thereby elected a Republican majority in the House. Once victory came overseas, he conceded more to his Allied partners in the peace negotiations than he should have, and his subsequent obstinacy in dealing with Senate Republicans over the ensuing peace treaty doomed American membership in the League of Nations—the postwar body that Wilson argued could have justified the whole bloody enterprise. Crippled by a stroke in 1919, Wilson lived out his second term in an ignorant daze and with a bitter temper, while Cabinet secretaries such as Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, fomenter of the first Red Scare, ran amok.

It is worth adding that Wilson also harbored racist views, screened Birth of a Nation at the White House, and acquiesced in the segregation of Cabinet departments and the District of Columbia.

To modern ears, the record of failed, botched, or ill-conceived policies that Wilson instigated or tolerated as president seems to mark him as a complete disaster. We can add to the above list of shameful or misguided pursuits the unappealing public persona of a rigid, moralizing schoolmaster, the Presbyterian minister’s son whose standoffishness won him few close friends, the prig whose craggy, iron-haired, stiff-jawed “old Scotch face,” as he called it, bespoke an inner dyspepsia. We can consider, too, that the cause for which Wilson fought most fervently—a world made safe for democracy—has in some quarters come to be associated, not for the first time, with American arrogance and naïveté, if not the very rapacious great-power colonialism that Wilson claimed he wanted to end.

Yet Woodrow Wilson continues to rank among America’s greatest presidents. Some sixteen surveys of historians conducted over the decades, conceptually and methodologically dubious though they are, have never put him lower than eleventh in the great presidential pecking order. (He would surely place higher, too, if sentiment did not lead so many of us to overrate Dwight Eisenhower or inflate the numbers of James Madison, whose White House tenure, despite his youthful brilliance in drafting the Constitution, was distinguished mainly by the War of 1812.) And while it’s hard to gauge anymore what “the public” knows, let alone thinks, about any historical figure whose death predates our lifetimes, Wilson’s reputation for noble liberalism remains strong, his standing as a historical titan relatively undiminished.

John Milton Cooper’s lively, fair-minded biography of Wilson—the culmination of a scholarly career spent studying the man and his era—has been described as revisionist. That label implies an attempt to overturn a settled judgment, and the book does challenge the main thrust of post-1960s scholarship, which stresses the now-familiar litany of Wilsonian shortcomings. But since, in the larger scheme of things, Wilson has not really lost much glory, and since Cooper wisely avoids picking fights with Wilson’s individual detractors, and since Cooper himself offers copious and unminced criticisms of his own, the revisionist tag is in the end inapt. Woodrow Wilson is too authoritative and independent to be reduced to the gadfly position of contrarianism: it is a judicious, penetrating measure of the man and his achievements and it should stand as the best full biography of Wilson for many years.

To be sure, ranking biographies—like ranking presidents—is a mug’s game. Serious students of Wilson will always have need for Ray Stannard Baker’s eight-volume Woodrow Wilson: Life and Letters, John Blum’s pithy gem Woodrow Wilson and the Politics of Morality, and the many works by the dean of Wilsonians, Arthur S. Link (not all of whom would agree with Cooper’s analyses). Serious readers, for their part, will care less whether Wilson edges out James K. Polk or John F. Kennedy for top-ten status in the Casey Kasem school of presidential scholarship than on how much they learn from this book about Wilson as the leader and the symbol of America in a time of high progressivism and the assumption of global responsibilities. At the margins, perhaps as a concession to assumed expectations, Cooper nods toward the business of ranking, but for the most part he sticks to the more important project of explaining who Woodrow Wilson was and what he accomplished.

The illusion of familiarity fostered by television and other mass media frequently leads us to think that we know public figures better than we really do. Those who are introverted or self-conscious or cerebral we assume to be lacking in charm, warmth, or passion. Wilson struggled against this problem in his own day, facing not television cameras but an increasingly large and relentless press corps working for the new mass-circulation newspapers and magazines. The first president to host regular gatherings of White House reporters—more than a hundred showed up for his first conference—Wilson had trouble loosening up before them, and the encounters turned tense or acrimonious. Frustrated by their sniping, Cooper notes, Wilson insisted that he was not “a cold and removed person who has a thinking machine inside...You may not believe it, but I sometimes feel like a fire from a far from extinct volcano.”

Cooper does justice to the fiery, energetic, spry, humorous Wilson, who emerges from these pages as a man who loved his work in politics and longed to make a difference. Disciplined and extraordinarily capable, he reached the top of his field, Cooper reminds us, in three different professions: political science, university administration, and politics. And while the press persisted in depicting Wilson as stuffy or humorless—political cartoons clothed him in academic robes, lecturing a Congress of unruly schoolboys—his private side, as is often the case with supposedly stiff politicians, belied the stereotypes. Wilson could be ironic as well as earnest, flexible as well as rigid. He loved the theater, excelled at mimicry, and recited witty limericks. In small groups he charmed the same reporters who deemed him forbidding in their formal interactions. Above all, and most often forgotten, he was immensely inspiring to his countrymen—an orator of the first rank, defending unimpeachable principles.

If all this were not enough, Cooper reveals, in a disclosure that would mortify Wilson, that the president was “a sexually ardent lover to the two women whom he married, and, possibly, to another during his first marriage.” Cooper supports his conclusion by quoting a letter from Wilson to his first wife, Ellen, requesting, “Will you not bring the little bundle of rubbers in the bottom drawer of the washstand?” The exposure of politicians’ sex lives has become a retroactive business. Far from puritanical, Wilson was disinclined to inject religion into politics, despite his own devout Christianity. His Presbyterian creed, Cooper explains, “stressed the workings of God in the world in large ways” and not any divine intervention in an individual’s life. Wilson neither spoke publicly about his faith nor justified his peacemaking efforts in evangelical terms.

So much for the man. But what of his politics? Even in his own time, doubts hovered about Wilson’s bona fides as a progressive, and some historians have continued to question them. His writings, after all, showed pronounced conservative tendencies—Burke was a hero—and his early backers included both Grover Cleveland Democrats and the very sort of machine politicians whom progressives sought to purge from politics. The face-off in 1912 against Theodore Roosevelt—the Republican nominee that year, President Taft, was doomed to his third-place finish early on—spurred Wilson to counter TR’s “New Nationalism” with his own “New Freedom,” a platform that has been cast as backward-looking, because it sought to restore nineteenth-century capitalism instead of coming to terms with the modern economy and its trusts. Then again, Roosevelt—despite having dusted off the Sherman Anti-Trust Act trust when he was president to prosecute and dissolve the Northern Securities railroad firm—was now promising mainly to regulate these too-powerful companies, whereas Wilson promised to break them altogether. On this view, Wilson’s was the more radical approach.

Cooper leaves no doubt about Wilson’s progressivism. He notes that Wilson abandoned or modified his conservative politics well before his run for president, and even before his successful bid for the governorship of New Jersey in 1910. And while Wilson always retained his Burkean esteem for statesmanship—for wise leadership that sought to interpret public opinion and forge consensus—this tendency hardly precluded frontal assaults on the bastions of economic privilege. Progressivism, in the early 1910s, was the spirit of the age, and while cynics might accuse Wilson of flipping with the winds, it would be fairer and more accurate to credit him with astutely sizing up the public mood and fashioning it into an achievable program of reform.

Periods of far-reaching liberal legislation have been disappointingly rare in American history. The twentieth century witnessed the New Deal, the Great Society—and the Progressive era. Theodore Roosevelt deserves credit for demonstrating the power of the presidency as a vehicle of reform, but Wilson probably achieved more legislatively—including, as Cooper notes, “the Federal Reserve, the income tax, the Federal Trade Commission, the first child labor law, the first federal aid to farmers, and the first law mandating an eight-hour workday for industrial workers,” as well as the hard-fought appointment of the sublime Louis Brandeis to the Supreme Court. Many of those reforms came directly from the New Freedom blueprint.

Hard-fought is a key term, because, somewhat surprisingly, Cooper finds in Wilson a cannier coalition-builder and horse-trader than is usually supposed. Philosophically, Wilson belongs squarely in the progressive camp not just because he used the force of government on behalf of social equality and justice, but also because he sincerely believed in governing in the public interest, without special regard for local constituencies or interests. (Later incarnations of liberalism, less deluded about the ease of ascertaining such a single common good, accepted more comfortably the persistence and legitimacy of group interests.) From Wilson’s pioneering work in political science, he had arrived at the powerful idea that the president alone was elected by the whole nation and alone represented public opinion—and thus was also a unique engine of change in the American system. At the same time, though, Wilson’s writings affirmed a commitment to party government, as not all progressives did, and he wasn’t above bargaining, compromising, and indulging in patronage to work his will in Congress. (New Jersey had taught him something.) He managed, for a time, to be both politician and statesman.

Progressivism differed from the liberalism that followed it not only in its belief in a common good but also in its relative backwardness on civil rights and civil liberties. In this regard, progressivism still had to progress. In the early twentieth century, blacks—nearly powerless at the ballot box—had no unqualified champion in mainstream white politics, nor had our current expansive attitudes toward free speech yet taken hold. Those historical conditions in no way absolve the failures on civil rights and civil liberties for which Wilson is today castigated (by Cooper among others), but they do help to explain them. It is also illuminating, though not exculpatory, to realize that Wilson, though no romantic devotee of the Lost Cause, was a Southerner by birth and upbringing, and within his cohort could actually be counted among the more enlightened on race.

Similarly, while it excuses Wilson not a whit, it is good to recall that few wartime presidents, facing the urgent need for national unity, have distinguished dissent from disloyalty as clearly as those on the outside—or those on the receiving end of official punishments—are able to do. Like Abraham Lincoln suspending habeas corpus, or like Justices of the Supreme Court upholding the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, Wilson was convinced that the ends justified the means. Untamed demagoguery, he feared, would endanger the successful implementation of the draft and prosecution of the war. Like his predecessors, he was wrong.

By the end of Wilson’s first term, he had realized his chief legislative goals, but even if he had not, the war engulfing Europe would have required a shift of attention abroad. For a brief while, he tried to placate the strong strain of American opinion that wanted no part of Europe’s bloody conflict. But the pressures on him mounted, with the two other great politicians of his day turning the ratchets. Roosevelt mercilessly taunted Wilson for his purported timidity—calling him a “Byzantine logothete”—while William Jennings Bryan, first as Secretary of State and then, after leaving the administration, as a private citizen, fanned the antiwar fires. Wilson, having come to the White House with no preparation in foreign affairs and without skilled diplomats at his side, stumbled repeatedly in this tense and dire interval, as he had in Mexico, wanting sincerely both to keep America out of war and to lead the way to peace. As late as January 1917, he spoke stirringly on behalf of peace, a “peace between equals,” a “peace without victory.”

The Germans forced Wilson’s hand. Despite the sinking in 1915 of the Lusitania, with its American passengers, the president had kept Roosevelt and the jingoes at bay and refrained from intervention. But when the Kaiser’s submarines continued to sink American merchant ships—and especially when the German foreign minister telegrammed Mexico to propose a secret pact against America—Wilson had no choice but to put the nation on a war footing, especially if he wished to honor public opinion, long the lodestar of his vision of democracy. That inchoate but discernible mass sentiment, despite large pockets of fierce opposition, now clamored for war. The question of whether more skillful diplomacy earlier on might have averted the German provocations had become moot.

For all the criticism that Wilson justly received for his handling of prewar and postwar diplomacy, he won the war itself. In a “miracle of mobilization,” as Cooper calls it, the United States, lacking a standing army, raised a force exceeding four million men, half of whom were dispatched to the Western Front, snuffing out any prospects of German victory. All the while Wilson insisted that his war aims would not be punitive, but instead based on a new international framework for a lasting peace. He won the war on those terms.

Against this backdrop and in Cooper’s hands, the story of Wilson’s bungling of the peace assumes its full tragic proportions. Unable to wrest from the Allies all that he wanted, unwilling to concede anything to an obstreperous Senate, Wilson forsook the bargaining skills that had made him a masterful first-term president and tried instead to rally public opinion to his cause. But the political scientist should have realized that his problem lay not so much with the masses, who were generally willing to support the treaty even with the controversial League of Nations provision, as with the Constitution’s stricture that two-thirds of the Senate ratify the treaty. Hitting the hustings, he traveled eight thousand miles, to isolationist strongholds in the far West, winning plaudits but gaining few if any Senate votes and so exhausting his body that he capitulated to a cerebral thrombosis. Though he recovered enough to walk with a cane, he could not see straight, literally or figuratively, and when supporters of the League tried to pass a modified bill to appease those senators with mild reservations, Wilson himself refused to compromise, killing his own cherished vision. America, and the world, were worse for the defeat.

Wilson had certainly raised unrealistic expectations for what would follow American intervention in the World War. But expectations were devolving upon the president anyway in the Progressive Era. Americans were fairly demanding solutions to the injustices and dislocations wrought by mass immigration, the swelling of the cities, and the economic transformations of the era; they elected as president men like TR and Wilson precisely because those men promised a presidency equipped to tackle these new problems.

In a fascinating vignette, one of several in which Cooper explores Wilson’s constitutional thinking, he recounts the president-elect’s response in early 1913 to a constitutional amendment to limit the president to a single six-year term. In writing out his objections to the amendment, in a letter that was sent to Congress but not published, Wilson noted that the president was “expected by the nation to be a leader of his party as well as the chief executive officer of the government. . . . He must be the prime minister, as much concerned with the guidance of legislation as with the just and orderly execution of the law,” and the nation’s ultimate authority in foreign relations. As a result, Wilson wrote, the president required “all the power he can get from the support and convictions and opinions of his countrymen” and should have that power “until his work is done.”

The outsized expectations of the modern presidency were already at hand in Wilson’s day, and it was necessary, the nation’s new leader thought, to steel his office with new capacities to stand even a chance of meeting them. But despite having the winds of public opinion at his back for several years, Wilson never did secure the kind of unwavering support he felt necessary; and for all that he accomplished, he never delivered as much as he or his countrymen imagined he could. And yet with the possible exception of Franklin Roosevelt, neither could Wilson’s successors. Despite accruing great new powers, exploding in size, and enjoying periodic bouts of extraordinary deference from the public, presidents since Wilson have continually served up their achievements amid a stew of disappointments. For better and worse, the modern presidency had arrived.

David Greenberg, a contributing editor to The New Republic, teaches history at Rutgers University and is at work on a history of presidents and spin.