I’ve always had mixed feelings about our 28th president. On the one hand, he was a leader in the progressive movement, modernized the banking industry, and pressed hard for peace in Europe after World War I. On the other hand, he segregated the federal government, failing to pick up where his three predecessors – McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft – left off in race relations. One could make the excuse that he was the child of the Confederacy and could be excused for the prejudices of his time. To that, I say it he was elected in 1912, a little late in the game to be hanging onto that character fault at his level of prestige.
That Wilson survived his first term at all is remarkable in and of itself. By the time he suffered the catastrophic stroke that left wife Edith in virtual control of the nation in 1919, he had survived five strokes, four before being elected governor of New Jersey. His ability not only to function but to govern – first Princeton University, then New Jersey, and finally, the United States – is a testament to his resiliency.
It also explains his increasingly intractable personality. Starting with his days as president of Princeton University, Wilson became more and more resistant to opposition, developing an autocratic style. In many ways, Wilson compares to Nixon in his autocracy. However, when viewed objectively, Wilson is redeemed by his idealism. Whereas Nixon’s inferiority complex was visible for all to see, Wilson clearly had a vision for his college and for the nation. Certainly, he was neither lazy nor dishonest. Like his successor, Warren Harding, he literally worked himself to death. (Although Harding, a robust man, died suddenly. Wilson lingered for three years after leaving the White House.)
But many of Wilson’s problems mirror those of an earlier president, Thomas Jefferson. Like Jefferson, Wilson was a brilliant political theorist. Like Jefferson, he was an intellectual. Unlike Jefferson, he had no John Adams or Alexander Hamilton to serve as a foil to give him a sense of pragmatism.
Intellectualism has certainly not been a hindrance to the presidency. Jefferson, James Madison (a fellow Princeton alum), and Lincoln were all intellectuals. FDR, Kennedy, and Clinton were also intellectual presidents. However, all these men learned from experience and were able to adjust. Wilson…
Not so much. I think it’s safe to say that, out of the 43 men who have occupied the White House, Woodrow Wilson is the Sheldon Cooper of American presidents.