100 Years After Woodrow Wilson

After a century, the former president’s legacy is promises that weren’t kept.

The retiring 28th President Woodrow Wilson, rides with his successor, Warren Harding.

Woodrow Wilson, we hardly know you - and here we are at the 100-year mark of your presidential inauguration in 1913. Let's get to know you a little better. 

Looking back at the only president who ever earned a Ph.D., we might note he was also one of the last to pen his own speeches. Another little-known fact: Woodrow Wilson was a Tiger, yes, a proud Princeton man. He lived in its elegant quadrangles as a student and later returned as the college president.

That is a telling detail, because the cerebral Wilson never was a man of the people, if you want to know the truth. He was a bit of a personal elitist, though he championed Democratic Progressive politics. That doesn't have to dominate our discussion, but we might as well get it out there. Wilson does not have the robust warmth of the Roosevelts (Harvard men), nor does he have the polyglot talents of Thomas Jefferson or the rugged populism of Andrew Jackson. And he's no Abraham Lincoln, the shrewd judge of character.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

This is why he is one of the few two-term presidents not to have a popular biographer write a book that resonates with us today, while we who think we know what Lincoln would be like to hang out with. (Yes, I am one of those.) Wilson would not be that fun to hang out with. The son of a Presbyterian minister, he was born in the antebellum South in 1856. So he actually counts as one of our too many Virginian presidents.

As a cultural southerner, he actively opposed the advancement of woman suffrage and blacks working for the federal government. He actually brought Jim Crow segregation to the federal workplace, which was an outrage. He didn't like us women stepping out of our place and chaining ourselves to the White House gates. He was no friend to the "Votes for Women" movement, which finally passed in 1920 over his half-dead body. Alice Paul, the striking suffrage leader and a Swarthmore College alumna, won over the Princeton man.

Washington is pausing to honor the tall formal man who came in as proud as they come and left as an invalid, broken by the weight of trying to tie up the Great War with a bow of world peace. His dream of a League of Nations was a great way to make the world safe for democracy - his most felicitous turn of phrase. The high-flown thinker in Wilson was several steps and beats ahead of his time. But he could not adjust his expectations to fit the realities of the moment.  

[See photos: The 67th United Nations General Assembly]

He clashed bitterly with a coalition of Republican senators, led by Henry Cabot Lodge, and simply lacked the political skills of persuasion, finesse and compromise. He tended to antagonize his opponents, and thus he was left with eloquent ideas in speeches that never saw the light of day.

In the end, Wilson's presidency had its personal high points - causing a social shiver when he married a glamorous widow named Edith less than a year after his first wife Ellen died in the White House. Heavens! Uxorious was his watchword.

But I believe he must be seen as a tragic figure, limited by his own sense of knowing best, but not knowing how to bend. His presidency was full of promises he could not keep.

Wilson had a brilliant intellectual senator as an admirer, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Wilson was a man's man, and I should just accept that. But before I do, I'll tell you the coolest thing I know about Woodrow Wilson. Woody Guthrie - the greatest folksinger - was named after him. Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, now that sings of America.

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  • Corrected on : Corrected 6/5/13: This post originally misidentified Daniel Patrick Moynihan.