NYT hosts "Room for Debate" roundtable on Woodrow Wilson with historians





The regular NYT feature "Room for Debate" hosted a roundtable of historians on October 13 to discuss why Woodrow Wilson sparks such animosity within conservative circles today.

Jill Lepore, David Woods Kemper Professor of American History at Harvard University:

This professor-president [Woodrow Wilson] has convenient similarities to our current chief executive — a scholar of constitutional law, professorial, intellectual, even, in some people’s eyes, effete (as, for instance, T.R. and F.D.R. were not). Also, given that Tea Party populism, at least as represented by remarks made by Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin over the last two years, is dedicated to the proposition that American history — the very study of the nation’s past -- has been stolen by elitist, leftist intellectuals, discrediting Wilson, broadly, as an intellectual and, specifically, as an American historian, is tactical.

John Milton Cooper, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Wisconsin:

The main problem with this current denunciation is that it does not spread the blame far or early enough. Theodore Roosevelt should come in for the same scorn, and Beck has occasionally tarred him with the same brush as Wilson. T.R. loved big government as much or more than Wilson did, and the main issue when the two men ran against each other for president was who was the stronger and more sincere advocate of big, strong, interventionist government.

George H. Nash, author of The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945:

Why is this view of Woodrow Wilson now agitating the American Right? The answer is simple: conservatives see in the Obama administration another great leap in the working out of an unconstrained, Wilsonian vision of government-from-above. And like Americans in 1776, conservatives are responding with the cry: Don't tread on me!

Mark A. Lawrence, Assistant Professor of History at UT Austin:

Better-known liberals like Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson left behind policy accomplishments that are widely embraced, even celebrated, across the political spectrum, making those presidents uninviting targets for attack. Few Americans, after all, question F.D.R.-era initiatives like Social Security, agricultural subsidies, or the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Still fewer quibble with Johnson’s landmark efforts to end segregation or provide health care for the elderly. To criticize these presidencies would risk highlighting the achievements of liberals who expanded federal power to good effect.

Michael Lind, policy director of the Economic Growth Program at the New America Foundation:

Each faction on the right has had its own view of the past, with its own canon of heroes and its own list of villains. While many conservatives claim to be “constitutionalists,” some states’ rights theorists argue that not only the Civil War but also the Founders’ Constitution of 1787 led to a tyrannical consolidation of power in the federal government. For decades highbrow cultural conservatives have accused the 18th century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau of wrecking Western civilization with his cult of the primitive.

Thomas G. West, Professor of Politics at the University of Dallas:

A growing body of scholars -- including John Marini, Charles Kesler, R.J. Pestritto and my colleague Tiffany Miller -- finds the origins of today’s liberalism in the Progressive era. Leading intellectuals of that day openly repudiated the principles of the American founding. In that group, Wilson is often highlighted because he was uniquely both a major politician and an academic.




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