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'The Moralist': What drove the 'tragic figure' of Woodrow Wilson?

A century after his term in office, many of Wilson's ideals remain deeply divisive.

Woodrow Wilson 'had really great triumphs and really spectacular defeats, and they've been important and lasting,' says historian Patricia O'Toole, author of the new book 'The Moralist.'
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  • Randy Dotinga

In 1913, my great-grandparents – both pioneers in the Oklahoma Territory – decided to honor the brand-new Democratic president of the United States. So they gave the middle names Woodrow and Wilson to a pair of newborn twins – both girls.

My great-aunts each lived nearly a century, one that was deeply influenced by President Woodrow Wilson. He won a war, lost a peace, and pushed progressive values while failing to stand up for minorities, women, and American freedoms.

"He had really great triumphs and really spectacular defeats, and they've been important and lasting," says historian Patricia O'Toole, author of the new book The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made.

Now, nearly 100 years after Wilson began a wrenching decline while in office, some of his ideas remain deeply divisive – especially his landmark commitment to worldwide cooperation instead of isolationist nationalism.

Q: What fascinates you about Woodrow Wilson?

I was collecting books about presidential  greatness, and I took a look at the index of one of them. The Wilson entries just went on and on, and he took up more space than Lincoln, Washington or Roosevelt.

Q: Why did you title the book "The Moralist"?

His conscience and deep moral concern allowed him to get legislation through Congress for six years when he had control of both Houses. Then the country voted Republican in the mid-term election of 1918, and all of a sudden he's a minority president.

He's not used to this. He's still trying to lead by his conscience and notions of morality, but it's not working any more.

His admirable moral sense hardens into moral superiority. He becomes unbending and ever more certain that he's on the right side of history, the guardian of American ideals, and everyone else is a threat. It's an overwhelming moral vanity.

Q: How does he manage to be so progressive while being so backwards at the same time?

He had been a champion of free expression, but he now holds the record of the greatest repression of dissent of any president.

As for race, he believed in segregation, but he knew it wasn’t fair. He just didn’t know any other thing to do about it. He said he did not know how to pass a law that would change people's attitudes.

That, of course, is what people were still saying to Martin Luther King Jr. 50 years later.

Wilson might have taken more a more enlightened stand. You hope that a leader will do that, especially if he knows in his gut that his position is morally wrong. But he knew he would lose, so he just bowed to the pressure.

Q: What surprised you about Wilson?

He was afraid of other powerful men and couldn't schmooze. His only male friend was his doctor, and he had 99% of his meals either alone or with his family.

It's extremely different from Theodore Rosevelt. If you were in his office at 11 in the morning and talking to him about something, he'd be likely to say, "Well, senator, can you have lunch with me and my family? Quentin was asking about your dog the other day." You'd go back to Capitol Hill thinking, "I really like this guy. I'll work with him."

Wilson never had this kind of good will going for him.

The other surprising thing is that he was a terrible negotiator because he didn't approve of negotiation. He never understood that when you make concessions to other people, you can ask for concessions from them.

Q: Despite his dour appearance, Wilson was quite the besotted romantic when it came to women. What did you discover on that front?

Women were not threatening to him.There are love letters between him and his first wife, and it's clear that they could hardly wait to see each other and be in each other's arms.

After he loses her, he's absolutely desolate and doesn't imagine he'll have another wife at all. Then he falls in love at first sight with Edith Bolling Galt. Sometimes he'd walk back to the White House from her house, and he'd be whistling and do a jig.

[She become Wilson's second wife, and many historians believe she managed the White House when he fell ill toward the end of his second term.]

Q: What is Wilson's legacy?

It's internationalism – the idea that there should be one alliance in the world, that everyone would have an interest in preventing war.

He thought global problems required global cooperation and global solutions. It was the most truly revolutionary idea of the 20th century in international relations.

Q: Do you think he's a tragic figure?

I do. He really was a deeply principled man, but there are these blots on his record of race and gender and the repression of dissent.

And then he's a pathetic figure after the mid-term elections of 1918. He can't get anything done, and he's just railing against the world. That's tragic for him and for us.

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