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Mr. Fix-It

The most inspirational of American presidents, Woodrow Wilson is also in some ways the most representative. In his idealism, his moralizing, and his insatiable tinkering to make everything better for everyone’s own good, he is America’s inner self. That is why we can never escape him. Nor is there any current interest in doing so. The recent revival of interest in his schemes for global democratization as an instrument of American influence give him a special relevance.

Wilson’s reputation has ebbed and risen over the decades since he left office in 1921, depending on the power that Americans felt they had to shape the world. During World War I, when the United States came to the rescue of the self-destructive Europeans, he was hailed as a savior. But following the war, when the Allies turned down his blueprint for a just peace and the US Senate rejected his vision of an embryonic world government, he lost his audience and soon his pulpit.

During the 1930s, with the US burrowed in depression and totalitarian dictatorships riding high in Europe, he was dismissed as an idle dreamer, if not a self-deluded megalomaniac. Interest in him was slight, although William Bullitt, who had once served and then turned against him, persuaded Sigmund Freud to collaborate on writing a withering biography.1 America’s entry into World War II revived his fortunes. It was the exuberance of 1917 all over again, except that this time the enemy was truly evil, not merely aggressive.

Here was a second chance, idealists believed, to build a more perfect world. President Franklin Roosevelt, a crafty politician who understood the weakness of Americans for grandiose schemes, had himself been a junior official in Wilson’s cabinet, and Cordell Hull, FDR’s own secretary of state, was an ardent Wilsonian. Together they put together a Wilson-inspired structure for world betterment under US leadership: the Atlantic Charter, the Bretton Woods accords, and the United Nations. But the Russians had other ideas. “One World,” to use the title of Wendell Willkie’s inspirational book popular at the time, soon split into two, and then more. Wilson was put back on the shelf.

The cold war took a heavy toll on his reputation. His schemes for universal peace and democracy were mercilessly ridiculed by such analysts of power politics as George Kennan, Walter Lippmann, Hans Morgenthau, and, later, Henry Kissinger. To them, in an age of hot ideologies, delicate military balances, and proxy wars, Wilson’s dream of a democratic world bound together by free trade and collective peacekeeping seemed simply irrelevant. And for the most part it was.

But the end of the cold war and the demise of the Soviet Union changed all that. In the absence of any serious military challengers or rival ideologies the US today reigns, for however long, supreme. The whole world looks to America for instruction. Not in democracy, as Wilsonians imagine. Rather they look to Silicon Valley and to Hollywood. People everywhere want to be rich, hip, and wired, and America sets the pace. This may not exactly be Wilson’s vision, but it is a powerful one.

Today virtually every American concerned with international issues is, or at least claims to be, a Wilsonian. By this they mean that they favor open market economies, self-determination for restive ethnic or nationality groups, collective security, and democratic governments. 2 Dusted off after decades of neglect and ridicule, Wilson is now hailed as the prophet of the age. His goals, so firmly repudiated in his own day, have become the watchwords of our own time. This is not so because of the force of Wilson’s personality, or because of his often overstrained eloquence, although these clearly played a part, but because he so perfectly captured the innocent, even self-righteous, idealism of the American yearning to reshape other societies. Louis Auchincloss’s elegant short biography helps us greatly to understand the pervasive and enduring impact of this exasperating and inescapable man.

Wilson would be a rich subject for a biographer even were his ideas not so currently fashionable. He was a man in love with power, which he could justify to himself only by insisting that he was exercising it for noble objectives. The son, and also the son-in-law, of Southern Presbyterian clergymen, he believed that his actions were never self-serving but were divinely ordained by God. Passionately committed to whatever goal he persuaded himself was right, he was a man of inflexible self-righteousness. However suitable for a prophet, this was not an ideal trait for a politician. His rigid refusal to compromise was more a reflection of arrogance and pride than of principle, and it ensured his defeat on the issues that mattered to him greatly.

It takes a novelist’s sensibility to probe the conflicting currents of this complex character and to show how they affected his actions. No one is better equipped for this task than Louis Auchincloss, our most discerning analyst of the world of power and privilege.3 Indeed Wilson seems almost tailor-made for one of Auchincloss’s own novels: a proud and idealistic man who enthralled millions but was ultimately undone by himself. Concise, sensitive, and discerning, Woodrow Wilson is an illuminating portrait.

Wilson had a mission. But despite his ecclesiastic heritage, he was not a missionary. He wanted to be in the world and to be a leader of men. Initially he thought he could do this through the law. But a year of desultory practice after law school so bored him that he enrolled in the graduate program at Johns Hopkins to get an advanced degree in history, politics, and economics. His goal, as he wrote in a letter at the time, was “…to become an invigorating and enlightening power in the world of political thought.”

His path to power lay not only through knowledge, but through persuasion. He lived in an age when oratory was highly prized, and a politician like William Jennings Bryan, who today would be considered a windbag fit only for a career as a TV evangelist, mesmerized crowds for hours with his mellifluous prose. Although Wilson despised Bryan, he respected his oratorical skill. “We would acquire knowledge that we might have power,” as he described a “solemn covenant” with a classmate, and “would drill ourselves in all the arts of persuasion but especially in oratory…that we might have facility in leading others into our ways of thinking and enlisting them in our purposes.” He was considered a brilliant speaker: a major reason for his success as a politician.

Today money and connections grease the path to political power. Wilson thought he could do it with intellect and oratory. And he did. In 1890, after teaching for five years at Bryn Mawr and Wesleyan, he won a coveted chair at Princeton, where he had done most of his undergraduate studies. There he laid the groundwork for his political career with a campaign built on public lectures and books. “I was born a politician,” he wrote in a note to himself at the time, “and must be at the tasks for which, by means of my historical writing, I have all these years been in training.” He was a popular lecturer and able administrator, and in 1902 was tapped to become president of the university. He used this position skillfully to attract national attention.

Politics is about leadership, and Wilson exercised it vigorously. In his first and best-known book, Congressional Government, he extolled a powerful chief executive on the British model, and deplored the power of Congress to obstruct reform. This was a preview of the way he would run his presidency. But politics is also about meeting one’s opponents partway; and Wilson was most inept in making compromises and even averse to them. This rigidity led to the two major defeats of his Princeton tenure, and the far greater one that ended the crusade of his life.

At Princeton he fought bitterly with the faculty and alumni over two issues of less than cosmic importance. The first was new housing for undergraduates that would reduce the social power of the “eating clubs.” The second was the location of a new graduate school that, contrary to Wilson’s wishes, a rich patron was willing to finance only if it were built outside the college campus. What is instructive is not that he lost both fights, but how he handled his defeat. Instead of seeking a middle ground that might have appeased his opponents, he insisted that his position was the only morally justifiable one. Wrapped in his virtue he traveled the country in search of alumni support to overrule the faculty’s decisions. He did not limit his rhetoric to Princeton’s affairs: “If she loses her self-possession,” he told one alumni group, “America will stagger…through fields of blood before she finds peace and prosperity under the leadership of men who understand her needs.” The fight with the Princeton faculty exhilarated him. But the exhilaration made no difference in the outcome.

To Wilson a principled defeat was always better than a victory on any but his own terms. In defeat he could retain the conviction that he was right. Compromise would convey lack of conviction. This rigidity reflects what Auchincloss calls, citing an earlier study by August Heckscher,4 the dual nature of his personality. The sensitive man who at times could see all sides of a question in which he was not emotionally engaged, at other times could hardly imagine that he might be wrong. With a self-righteousness reinforced by a religious conviction that he was carrying out God’s will, he tended, in Auchincloss’s words, “to regard opposition as malicious betrayal.”

Wilson was rescued from his embarrassment at Princeton in 1910 when the Democratic bosses of New Jersey, impressed by his reputation as a moderate reformer and in search of a candidate who appeared progressive but would not threaten their interests, nominated him for governor. To their dismay he displayed no gratitude, and once elected pushed through legislation that weakened their power.

Two years later the Democrats, desperate for a new face after having gone down to defeat three times in a row with the orotund Bryan as their candidate, nominated Wilson for president. Fortune smiled. What would have been a sure win for the Republican incumbent William Howard Taft turned into a three-way race when Theodore Roosevelt bolted the GOP and ran as a progressive on his Bull Moose ticket. Wilson squeezed through with 43 percent of the vote: not exactly a mandate, but enough. He was not surprised. “Remember,” he told an astonished politician, “that God ordained that I should be the next president of the United States.” And for a purpose, to be sure, for as he told voters during the campaign, “I believe that God presided over the inception of this nation [and] …that we are chosen to show the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty.”

  1. 1

    Thomas Woodrow Wilson: Twenty-Eighth President of the United States: A Psychological Study by Sigmund Freud and William C. Bullitt (Houghton Mifflin, 1967). See Erik H. Erikson, “The Strange Case of Freud, Bullitt, and Woodrow Wilson: I,” and Richard Hofstadter, “The Strange Case: II,” The New York Review, February 9, 1967.

  2. 2

    For thoughtful expressions of the new Wilsonianism, see Tony Smith, America’s Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy in the Twentieth Century (Princeton University Press, 1994) and Thomas J. Knock, To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order (Oxford University Press, 1992); for a sharply negative view, see Lloyd C. Gardner, A Covenant With Power: America and World Order from Wilson to Reagan (Oxford University Press, 1984).

  3. 3

    Indeed two of Auchincloss’s finest novels, The Rector of Justin and The House of the Prophet, are, with thin disguise, based on such men of influence: respectively Bishop Endicott Peabody and Walter Lippmann.

  4. 4

    Woodrow Wilson (Scribners, 1991).

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