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Wilson biographer explains why she thinks he was one of the most consequential presidents, flaws and all

Patricia O’Toole is the author of five books, including The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made, When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt after the White House, and The Five of Hearts: An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and His Friends, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. A former professor in the School of the Arts at Columbia University and a fellow of the Society of American Historians, she lives in Camden, Maine.

Q: You argue that moral concerns were at the heart of Woodrow Wilson’s leadership, his ambitions, and his vision for the world. What led you to that conclusion, and why did you want to write about it? 

A: I didn’t set out to write a book focused on Wilson’s morality, but the more I studied him, the more intrigued I was by the importance of his moral compass. It’s a critical piece of his character and of his presidency. When faced with political and economic problems, he wanted to find solutions that were not only politically and economically sound but also right by commonly accepted moral principles. I noticed that when he made a decision that did not meet his moral standards, he was often upset emotionally—sometimes to the point where he fell physically ill. Woodrow Wilson was a man who always wanted to be on the high road. I was fascinated by that, and because it figured so prominently in his leadership, his legislative agenda, and his foreign policy, I made it the focus of the book. 

Q: Wilson had an unusual path to the presidency. He was a professor of political science and a university president, and his only political experience before going to the White House consisted of two years as governor of New Jersey. How did this affect his presidency and his relations with the Democratic Party? 

A: Wilson had much to learn when he got to the White House, but he was a quick study. Also, he knew that a president’s best chance for success was through his party, so he made a great effort to win the support of all factions of the Democratic Party for his legislative agenda. His success in uniting the Democrats enabled him to end the reign of laissez-faire—a huge achievement. He also talked them into backing his drive for a build-up of the nation’s defenses, for example. That was not a cause near and dear to Democrats, who saw the Atlantic and Pacific as sufficient protection against invasion. Wilson, fearing that the United States would be dragged into the world war, thought it only prudent to enlarge the army and navy. Overcoming the Democrats’ resistance was a major political victory for him. 

Q: You write, “No previous president and only two of his successors (Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson) compiled a legislative record as impressive as Wilson’s” (page 2). What accounted for his success?

A: Four things. First, Wilson’s fellow Democrats controlled both houses of Congress for the first six years of his presidency. Second, he broke with a tradition in place since Jefferson’s time, an unwritten rule against presidential speeches to Congress. During his two terms in office, he made about two dozen addresses in the Capitol. Third, he had excellent handlers on the Hill—one in the House (Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson) and the other in the Senate (Secretary of the Treasury William G. McAdoo). Both men were unusually persuasive. The final factor was the legislation itself. His major proposals offered intelligent solutions to economic problems that had vexed the country for years. Congress had kicked them down the road. With congressional Democrats holding the reins, Wilson seized the moment and got the job done.

Q: What were those laws, and what did they achieve? 

A: In a nutshell, Wilson’s legislative agenda, known as the New Freedom, modernized the relationship between business and government by greatly expanding federal authority over economic activity. Wilson persuaded Congress to establish the Federal Reserve System and, ignoring the wishes of the country’s bankers, he put responsibility for it in federal hands. He won passage of the Clayton Antitrust Act, which did more to prevent monopoly than the trustbusting done by his predecessors. He led the efforts that created the Federal Trade Commission and the modern income tax. And he secured the eight-hour day and an end to child labor. 

Q: Wilson was a great orator, and you write that “He spoke common sense uncommonly well” (page 63). Please tell us about his gift, where it came from, and how it served him. 

A: Wilson’s father was a Presbyterian minister whose sermons were much admired by his congregations. As a boy, Woodrow Wilson had trouble learning to read (he was probably dyslexic), but he loved the spoken word and was precociously good at it. For fun, he and his father sat around dissecting great political orations and trying to find passages where they thought they could make a great speech even greater. The boy wrote some speeches of his own and practiced delivering them to the cows in his family’s barn. As a teenager, he decided he wanted to be a statesman, and at college he began preparing himself by competing in campus debating societies.  

Wilson was good at debate, even better at oratory, and he got the idea that if you could make a well reasoned, persuasive, inspiring speech, you could prevail in politics. The experience of his first six years in the White House seemed to validate his idea. But after the Republicans won control of both houses of Congress in 1918, Wilson’s oratory did not bring him any more victories. Tragically, he continued to make speeches in the hope that they would inspire his fellow Americans to pressure their senators and congressmen into supporting his call for U.S. membership in the League of Nations. But the country was more receptive to the Republicans’ arguments against League membership than to Wilson’s views. 

Q: One of Wilson’s greatest speeches was his Fourteen Points Address. What did he say, and why is it considered a landmark? 

A: He gave the speech on January 8, 1918—about six months after the first U.S. troops landed in France. Most of the fourteen points don’t matter anymore; they were about thorny territorial issues that would have to be addressed once the fighting ended. But the rest amounted to a program for minimizing the chances of another world war. Wilson proposed that the nations of the world come together in an organization that would eliminate the things that he (and many others) considered the major causes of World War I: arms races, secret diplomatic agreements, trade barriers, alliances that pitted one heavily armed bloc of nations against another, and tensions between imperial governments and their colonies. He called for arms reductions, open diplomacy, free trade, and the right of all peoples to choose their own form of government. Although he stopped short of asking the imperial powers to grant independence to their colonies, he demanded that colonies be governed in the interests of their inhabitants. This new world order would be centered in a League of Nations, whose members would be committed to the preservation of peace—with diplomacy if possible but troops if necessary. Organizing the whole world in an alliance for peace was a revolutionary idea. Before Wilson, the world was divided into competing alliances organized for war. 

Q: You point out that Wilson campaigned on a promise to make decisions after “taking counsel” with his cabinet and other advisers but, over time, came to prefer thinking things through alone (p. 211). He grew steadily more isolated in his second term and, you write, his isolation “exacerbated his antipathies, his stubbornness, and his desire to act alone” (page 340). Ultimately, what were the effects of his isolation?

A: It was mostly but not entirely a handicap. When I read the 1913-1921 entries in the White House Usher’s Diary—mainly a record of who came to visit the president, and when—I was astonished to see that President Wilson ate 99% of his meals alone or with his family. He was the opposite of an extrovert like Theodore Roosevelt, who constantly broke bread with visitors. Also, Wilson golfed several times a week. Golf was his favorite form of exercise, and more days than not, he played for an hour or two. But he excluded official Washington from these outings. Befriending men in high places was distasteful to him.  Many members of Congress, even members of his own party, came to feel that he was not interested in them except when he wanted their votes. 

Wilson did seek his cabinet secretaries’ opinions on big issues, and many influential men who wanted him to succeed often wrote to him to share their opinions and suggestions. But from the earliest days of the war, Wilson could see that making a global peace—something never before attempted—would be the most gargantuan, most complex challenge ever faced by the world’s leading statesmen. A few months after the U.S. declaration of war, Wilson appointed a group called The Inquiry, a team of specialists in international law, geography, history, economics, and other fields. Their mission was to study the problems of peace, define the big issues, and make recommendations to the president. That was a good idea, but he held almost no discussions with the members of The Inquiry, nor did he discuss his own ideas on peace with his secretary of state or others in the State Department. Nor did he ask the leaders of the congressional committees on foreign affairs for their input. He preferred to sit in his study and read and think on his own. The only person he regularly consulted was his confidential advisor, Colonel Edward M. House. House was pretty good on domestic affairs and party politics but a poor guide in international matters. He often played Wilson’s advisors against each other, and he sometimes promised Wilson one thing but made different promises to diplomats from other countries and assured them that he could bring Wilson around to their views.  

If ever there was a time when the president of the United States needed a wide range of advice on foreign politics, this was it. But Wilson mistakenly put his trust in House and ignored others, especially his secretary of state, Robert Lansing. Lansing is customarily portrayed as a dull international lawyer incapable of having big ideas because he was supposedly lost in legal technicalities. On a couple of occasions, he publicly expressed his differences with Wilson, so he is also painted as disloyal. But after immersing myself in Lansing’s private papers and his letters to Wilson (who preferred letters to meetings), I saw that Lansing was very perceptive. Writing a hundred years after the fact, you know how things turned out, and what impressed me about Lansing was that many of his predictions about the Paris Peace Conference and about Wilson’s performance there proved correct. For example, Lansing accurately foresaw that Wilson would be at a disadvantage because of his poor negotiating skills and that his work with the other leaders in Paris would be complicated by his stubbornness and self-righteousness (both of which were aggravated by his self-imposed seclusion at the White House). 

There were two good effects of Wilson’s isolation, however. It allowed him to consider issues carefully before he made a decision. He did not fly by his instincts. His mistakes stand out precisely because there were so few of them. The second virtue of Wilson’s preference for solitude is that he did not micromanage. He gave his cabinet secretaries wide latitude to run their departments. During the war, he delegated responsibilities to several cabinet members and advisors who proved extraordinarily able. (Chapter 25, “The Right Men.”) There were missteps in the early stages of the war effort, mainly because the federal government had never before attempted to meet an emergency on such a large scale. But there were no scandals and very little profiteering.

Q: You write that the most radical aspect of Wilson’s conduct of foreign relations was his “abandonment of isolationism, the first principle of U.S. foreign policy. When his critics complained that American participation in an international peacekeeping league would create the entangling alliances George Washington had inveighed against, Wilson answered that the naysayers had missed his point. He was proposing a ‘disentangling alliance,’ he said, one that would free the world from the old balance-of-power alliances that overnight had plunged fifteen nations into war. By the time Wilson publicly proposed his league of nations, the war had touched five continents. The New Republic hoped Wilson would succeed and predicted that his speech would be remembered as a turning point in the world’s history.” What does this mean today with Trump’s “America First” priority? 

A: We are now at another turning point in the world’s history. It is often said that World War II proved that Wilson’s dream of a peace maintained by the League of Nations was only a dream. But President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not think so. Although his design for the United Nations differed significantly from Wilson’s design for the League, F.D.R. believed as firmly as Wilson in the need for a world order endorsed by most if not all of the world’s nations. Many of the aspirations in the U.N. charter were taken straight from the covenant for the League, and the decision to base the new organization in New York signaled the U.S. intention to take the lead in stabilizing the postwar world—the course that Wilson had wanted to follow.

Wilson’s greatest mistake as president resulted from his failure to build a bipartisan consensus for U.S. membership in the League. F.D.R. avoided that mistake and won the Senate’s approval for the U.N. in advance. F.D.R. died just before the U.N. charter was signed, but his successor, Harry S. Truman, sounded a Wilsonian note at the signing ceremony when he declared that the most powerful nations, far from having the right to dominate the world, had a duty to use their power to lead the world to peace and justice. 

As a citizen of the world, the United States has not always measured up to the ideals of the liberal internationalism first enunciated by Wilson. But in the seventy years that followed World War II, the United States was a strong supporter of international institutions (some global, like the U.N., and some regional, like NATO).  With Trump’s nationalistic “America First” rhetoric, we are now in unfamiliar territory. It is too soon to say whether he will be able to bring about the changes he wants, so it is hard to predict their lasting effects. Wilson once argued that to be a great nationalist, you had to be a great internationalist. As he put it, “The greatest nationalist is the man who wants his nation to be the greatest nation, and the greatest nation is the nation which penetrates to the heart of its duty and mission among the nations of the world.” I think that is an idea worth thinking about now when the post-World War II order and democracy itself are under enormous stress. 

Q: You write that “Wilson had an unshakable faith in the idea that what was best for the world would be best for the United States” (page 344). But in the end, he failed to persuade his fellow Americans that they would benefit from joining the League of Nations and playing a major role on the world stage. What went wrong?

A: What happened after Wilson came home from Paris, in the summer of 1919, was a political tragedy compounded by a personal catastrophe. When Wilson went to Paris, at the end of 1918, the Republicans had just won majorities in both houses of Congress. He was an intensely partisan president, and he neither consulted the Republicans about his plans for the League of Nations nor did he appoint any leading Republicans to the peace delegation he took to Paris. They naturally resented their exclusion, and they had legitimate questions about the obligations the United States would take on if it joined the League. Wilson’s advisors tried to coax him into a more cooperative approach, but he had convinced himself that he held the moral high ground, that the American people (and the peoples of the world, for that matter) would want the new world order that he championed, and that to settle for anything less than the agreement made in Paris would dishonor the Americans who had died in the war. 

Wilson needed a two-thirds majority in the Senate to ratify the peace treaty, and he planned to get it by taking his case to the people. So in September 1919 he set out on a cross-country speaking tour. His doctor feared that he was not physically up to it, and unfortunately, his doctor was right. About three weeks into the tour, Wilson collapsed and had to be rushed back to Washington. A few days later, Wilson suffered a stroke that permanently paralyzed his right side. He could no longer lead the fight for ratification. He rarely saw anyone besides his wife and doctor, so he was more isolated than ever before. His stubbornness became even more pronounced. 

Leadership of the president’s fight fell to Senator Gilbert Hitchcock of Nebraska, the ranking Democrat on the Committee on Foreign Relations. Hitchcock shared Wilson’s internationalist vision and fought hard for it, but he understood that Republicans would not vote for the treaty without some changes they considered necessary to protect U.S. interests. Even though the Allies were willing to accept the Republican changes, Wilson would not. The treaty was defeated, and the United States never joined the League of Nations. I found it painful to watch this tragedy unfold. Here is an honorable statesman with a noble dream for his country and the world. He is on the brink of a great moral victory—perhaps the greatest in the history of the world. All he has to do is grant a few small concessions to the enemy. But he cannot make himself do it. His dream falls victim to his moral vanity. 

Q: No president has done more to stifle political dissent than Wilson did during the war (Chapter 26, “One White-Hot Mass Instinct”). Before the war, he had spoken eloquently about the importance of free speech. What changed? 

A: In a nutshell, he wanted to win the war. One-third of Americans at that point were immigrants or children of immigrants. Many had European relatives fighting in the war—some for the Allies and some for the Central Powers. In 1917, when the United States gave up its neutrality and entered the war as an associate of the Allies, Wilson was determined to unite all Americans in the fight against the Central Powers. Dissent was seen as a threat to unity. Unfortunately, the Justice Department went overboard in prosecuting those who protested the war. So did the Postmaster General, who had the power to strip newspapers and magazines of the low mailing rate they enjoyed because of their role in informing the public. The government’s suppression of dissent, in combination with a far-reaching anti-German propaganda campaign, had another negative consequence: it inspired vigilantes all over the country to burn churches of pacifist sects, rough up German aliens suspected of disloyalty, and tar and feather conscientious objectors. There were even a few lynchings. Nearly all of the vigilantes got off scot-free. On occasion Wilson challenged the actions of the Justice Department and the Post Office, but when they pushed back, he did not press further. 

Q: Wilson’s relationships with the women in his life—both of his wives and all three of his daughters—shines through in the book. You make the point that he much preferred the company of women to that of men. Why?

A: The women in Wilson’s life were lively and intelligent, and he valued their judgment. They also thought he was the smartest, kindest, most important man in the world. In short, they adored him. They offered suggestions and opinions on political matters, but they hardly ever gave him any guff.  

Q: Given his appreciation of women, why was he so slow to get on board with the suffragists’ campaign for a constitutional amendment that would give women across the country the right to vote?

A: He saw women’s suffrage as an issue for the states to decide. On this issue, as on segregation, he did not want to incur the wrath of the Southern bloc in Congress. When he ran for reelection in 1916 and his Republican opponent came out in favor of a suffrage amendment, Wilson’s daughters tried to persuade him to take the same stand. But he wouldn’t budge. He did not come around until 1918, when he could see that there was going to be an amendment whether he was on board or not. 

Q: You say that he avoided other powerful men. Why? And what were the consequences? 

A: Wilson had a low tolerance for opposition and never overcame it. Few people welcome opposition, but to be successful, a political leader has to put up with it and make the effort required to change minds. Often the effort requires negotiation and compromise. Wilson occasionally did this work, but he when possible he did an end run around it by making well-argued speeches for his position. He seemed to hope that reason would be enough to bring the opposition into the fold. Making speeches is much easier than going toe to toe with powerful men, because powerful men are likely to debate, disagree, and generally speak their minds. Wilson was not a coward. He could be a bold and ferocious advocate when big issues were on the table, as they were at the Paris Peace Conference. But it was not a role he relished. He liked to study problems alone and consider them from every angle he could think of before he made a decision. That was admirable but not sufficient, because nobody, no matter how smart or well informed, has a monopoly on good ideas. He would have done well to ask the handful of advisors he trusted and perhaps the best of the Republican leaders to consider the same problems from every angle they could think of. Secretary of State Lansing regularly volunteered his opinions to Wilson, and he was rewarded with something close to ostracism. The longer Wilson was in office, the more inclined he was to see opposition as disloyalty. That is not a useful quality in a president. 

Q: You present Wilson as a moralist, and you make the case that his intense focus on morality in politics was sometimes an asset and sometimes a liability. Can you explain?

A: There is a difference between trying to do the right thing and believing that your ideas are morally superior to those of your adversaries. Striving to do the right thing for your country and striving to persuade your country to do right by the world are admirable. His greatest political victories were rooted in great moral principles. But they were also a consequence of his party’s control of both houses of Congress. When he lost control, in the midterm election of 1918, and Republicans began pressing their own agenda, Wilson began thinking of his opponents as morally deficient. And when a political leader thinks he has a monopoly on virtue, he has crossed the line between morality and moral vanity. That’s what happened to Wilson. 

Q: Was Wilson was a great president?

A: The “great president” rankings don’t tell us everything we need to know to be thoughtful citizens. Wilson goes up and down in those rankings. In the last CNN survey, he fell from sixth to tenth place. I think the drop can be explained partly because of his poor record on race and partly because internationalism is out of vogue. But if we talked about “consequential presidents” instead of “great presidents,” Wilson would always be in the top four, with Washington, Lincoln, and F.D.R. Wilson’s legislative triumphs—the Federal Reserve Board, his antimonopoly measures, and the income tax—were monumental. Under his leadership, U.S. troops and U.S. money turned the tide of the war. The Allies were on the brink of exhaustion and defeat when two million American soldiers joined the fighting in the spring of 1918. And Wilson’s new world order, which rested on the idea that internationalism would do more than nationalism to preserve peace and promote prosperity, was the revolutionary idea of twentieth-century international relations. The League of Nations failed, but internationalism survived for a hundred years. It is now under siege, but I don’t think we have seen the last of it. His big idea—that global problems require global solutions—is still sound. So Woodrow Wilson was one of the most consequential presidents in history.