28 May 2012
Bought on a whim to survive a 19 hour flight from Manila to Majuro, this biography was a good and engaging read. President Wilson's name is frequently bandied about in modern political discourse. Conservatives derail him as the beginning of the end of idyll America and some liberals hold him to be a prescient prophet regarding foreign affairs. Within the field of public administration, Wilson is regarded as something of the father of the modern bureaucratic system, for better or worse. Regardless of ideological perspectives one may have, Woodrow Wilson clearly presided over--but did not single-handedly enact--a dramatic transformation of American civilization that deserves greater scrutiny and understanding.
There are some striking similarities between Wilson and our current president. Of course, I am not the first one to make such a comparison, but I find it telling that both come from academic backgrounds, had limited political experience prior to the Presidency, were forced to deal with foreign conflicts they didn't want (yet were awarded Nobel Peace prizes prematurely), and struggled to apply abstract, idealistic concepts in the real world (Wilson with his League of Nations, Obama with his health care plan). One can take the analogy too far of course, but I believe there is a broader similarity driving many of these issues: both Presidents are active at times in U.S. history fraught with dramatic social and economic changes.
For Wilson, a rapidly developing manufacturing base, high rates of immigration, and a growing progressive sentiment all contributed to a radical restructuring of how America thought of itself. The transition from an agricultural to manufacturing nation was not without discord and threats of the complete disintegration of American values. Today, our economy struggles to redefine itself as we move from a service-sector economy to a...what? And in what kind of world? The very fact that we don't really know what the country's future holds is the key to much of the unrest and discord we are currently experiencing. Perhaps technology-oriented innovations that rapidly restructure existing agricultural, manufacturing, and service sectors, perhaps some form of retrenchment within existing economic models, perhaps something we can't even anticipate right now. Reflecting on how we continue to grapple with our country's future provides very helpful context while reading about Wilson's challenges.
Probably the most striking aspect of Wilson's presidency--and the one fact that most high school students could probably recite on demand--is his uncompromising position on the League of Nations. Many of his comments certainly sound eerily prophetic, promising his listeners that their children will serve in another world war if nations cannot figure out how to cooperate in international venues and if Congress fails to ratify the Treaty of Versaille. I strongly doubt the League as constructed by Wilson would have been adequate to staunch the feelings of revenge, nationalism, and retribution felt on both sides of the conflict. But still, his intuition was correct and must surely stand as an important historical moment, despite his inability to see his dream to fruition.
Woodrow Wilson's presidency is convoluted and complicated, filled with triumphs and dramatic failures. The author does an excellent job of filling in the supporting characters, the personal dynamics of his leadership style, the human element of his political actions. I was also struck, too, by how technology (or the lack thereof) played such a large role in the nation's affairs. Lacking electronic amplifiers, Wilson's power was in direct proportion to his oratorical stamina. Face-to-face negotiations with European leaders at the end of World War I required months of the President's time and a near complete disregard of domestic issues. Public relations was a battle of words, fought in the daily newspapers widely read throughout the country. A lot has certainly changed in the past century.
Aided in large measure by Wilson's extensive writings and letter, Cooper's research is impressive and provides a well-rounded picture of the Wilson's life. I enjoyed the author's easy-going writing style and his thoughtful editorial comments suggesting plausible reasons for certain actions or hinting at the broader historical implications. I would have enjoyed a a more thorough discussion of Wilson's upcoming and early years, though I understand his reasons for spending less than 100 pages on this section of his life. Wilson is certainly not the most renowned president nor the most charismatic; but the lessons of his presidency provide helpful context for today's political environment.