Inaugurated 100 years ago, Woodrow Wilson did not want the U.S. to get involved in World War I – and “always considered American entry a last resort, to be considered only after all diplomatic efforts had failed,” says A. Scott Berg, author of a new biography, Wilson.
In his speech to the nation last Tuesday about Syria’s use of chemical weapons, President Obama said, “I've spent four and a half years working to end wars, not to start them… Several people wrote to me [that] we should not be the world’s policeman. I agree. I have a deeply held preference for peaceful solutions.”
Obama might as well have been “channeling Wilson,” said Berg in an interview on Friday. “He was asking all the questions and saying all the things Wilson would have done 100 years ago.”
By April 2, 1917, after years of German aggression, “Wilson went to Congress and asked for a declaration of war, insisting ‘the world must be safe for democracy.’ Wilson was saying there’s a moral component to being the mightiest nation on earth, that we have to look at what’s going on around the world.”
Obama, in arguing for a military option against Syria but hoping for diplomatic solutions, acknowledged a similar consideration, suggested Berg: “How far are we expected to go in policing the world? How far do we expect ourselves to go? Every [military] intervention in the last century grows out of this global responsibility question that Wilson first posed.”
Yet Obama still has lessons to learn from Wilson’s life, said Berg. Chief among them, as the nation faces serious budget crises this fall, is the need for roll-up-the-sleeve communication between the president and Congress.
“Pennsylvania Avenue is a two-way street. Wilson was always willing to go more than halfway. He reintroduced presidential appearances before Congress. Imagine: It had been 113 years since a president had shown up in Congress – since John Adams’ presidency. Even the State of the Union speeches would be sent down to Congress, where a clerk would read them.”
Wilson “wanted to show that the executive branch was about people. He humanized it by showing up. He called 25 joint sessions of Congress during his administration. Other than the State of the Union, that’s more than every other president combined.”
Even August recesses didn’t deter him – and that was before air conditioning.
“Wilson would call Congress whenever he had an important measure to discuss – even in summer, which was crazy in Washington. He would tell them what the job was. Then, even more amazing, he’d show up in Congress the next day. He’d say, ‘Let’s discuss this.’ He’d sit down and work. He’d grab senators, twist arms, have a sustained dialogue. Even when Congress disagreed with him, which was often, the dialogue was ongoing and the American public knew about it.”
Here are more highlights from the interview with Berg:
MM: We generally don’t think of Wilson when we think of presidents who were great dealmakers or communicators. Are you on a mission to buff up his reputation?
A. Scott Berg (ASB): I’m on a mission to humanize him. He’s undeniable. People remember the picture of a grim Presbyterian minister’s son. But this was a full-blooded, vital guy who passed the most aggressive agenda the country had ever seen.
MM: This speaks to deficiencies in how we teach American history.
ASB: Almost surely. Wilson was an academic [president of Princeton] before he was president, so most books are scholarly tomes. They’re diplomatic histories or military histories and they miss the human element. FDR, Harry Truman, JFK – they’ve had lively biographies written about them. I’ve read hundreds of books about Wilson but nothing really showing him as a living, breathing figure.
MM: You show the living, breathing man right after he delivers his ‘world must be safe for democracy’ speech.
ASB: Wilson drove back to the White House in silence, sitting with his wife, and went into his office. He put his head down on a table – and sobbed. He was angry that Congress had cheered his message [for going to war] because he knew he was about to sign the death warrants for several hundred thousand Americans. That’s the humanity of the man.
MM: What quality does Wilson share with others you’ve profiled – Goldwyn, Lindbergh, Hepburn?
ASB: Passion, whether it was reforming higher education in America or passing the ‘New Freedom’ reforms as president. Wilson was also the most effective speaker of his day – and an eloquent writer. He was the last president to write every one of his own speeches, which he did in shorthand; then he would correct them and type them.
MM: He had serious health issues while in office – and you mention dementia in his later years.
ASB: During his League of Nations tour around the country in 1919 – which he undertook when he realized the Republican Senate was going to defeat the Treaty of Versailles, which he had worked so hard for – Wilson collapsed. He was rushed back to the White House and had a stroke that greatly incapacitated him. It was kept secret from the country for most of the next year and a half, until he left office. The takeaway from this? The 25th amendment: We now have presidential disability clearly defined in the Constitution. In Wilson’s day, it was not.
MM: His wife, Edith, and his personal physician, Dr. Cary Grayson, pulled off a great conspiracy after that, you say.
ASB: Basically three or four people ran the show and kept anybody from seeing the president. It wasn’t a power grab – it was really for the sake of the president’s health. It could have been different if they’d gone to the vice president. But they believed the VP [Thomas R. Marshall] was a buffoon. So they chose to circumvent him. Remarkable.
MM: Can you imagine a Biden or a Cheney out of the loop in this way today? Can you imagine the nation out of the loop on something like this?
ASB: You can’t imagine a president being MIA for five minutes today, especially with everybody having a cell phone. Nobody can go missing anymore – certainly not in the White House.