Thursday, March 31, 2016

Book Review: The American President - Part II Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson had the belief from early in his life that he was destined by God for greatness.  After securing the nomination in 1912 and hearing from a Democratic leader that the man thought he deserved some of the credit for Wilson's win, Wilson said, "Whether you did little or much, remember that God has ordained that I should be the next President of the United States. Neither you nor any other mortal or mortals could have prevented that."

What a scream he must have been at parties.

Author William Leuchtenburg considers Wilson's calling Congress into special session after his inauguration in 1913, "one of the more dramatic departures in the history of the presidency. To urge the necessity for tariff reform, he appeared before Congress in person - the first chief executive to do so since John Adams." While some traditionalists at the time complained about Wilson's 'stunt', Leuchtenburg said overall it made a positive impression on the nation and that it was, "an enduring contribution to the strength of the Executive Office." H.W. Brands writes, "This return to long-abandoned practice...was one of the hallmarks of the Wilson presidency, and one of his lasting contributions to American governance.." Wilson kept that Congress in session for eighteen straight months - something that had never happened before, not even during the Civil War.

Leuchtenburg considers Wilson's ability to secure his signature domestic outlook - the New Freedom - as a great example of presidential leadership. Leuchtenburg notes, "By dynamic leadership, Wilson had won enactment of the entire program of the New Freedom. He had given the country its first coherent banking system and had secured the first antitrust law since adoption of the original Sherman Act of 1890. In the difficult terrain of tariff reform - where [Grover] Cleveland had balked, where [Theodore] Roosevelt had feared to tread, where [William Howard] Taft had been all but impaled - Wilson had succeeded beyond every expectation....Above all, Wilson had demonstrated what many reasonable people had long doubted - that the Democratic Party could rule."

Yet, even with his domestic successes, the odds were long for Wilson's reelection in 1916 - the Democrats were the minority party. Wilson had only won in 1912 because of the Republican split between Taft and Roosevelt. Leuchtenburg notes, "The candidate of a reunified GOP in 1916 figured to be the likely victor. On Election Night, the New.York Times pronounced [Republican nominee Charles Evans] Hughes the winner, for he had swept almost all of the Northeast and the Midwest, running strongly even in former Democratic bastions....[thinking he was defeated], Wilson got set to carry out a plan he already had in place...he intended to resign at once and install [Hughes] in the White House, so that there would be no discontinuity in national leadership." For days, the election results were in doubt. As Leuchtenburg explains, "Finally, in California, a margin of less than 4,000 out of 1,000,000 ballots pushed Wilson over the top, making him the first Democrat since Andrew Jackson to win a second consecutive term in the White House." Despite this, it still took Hughes close to two weeks before he would concede the race.

Of course, Wilson's second term was dominated by World War I and the aftermath. While largely considered a failed term, Leuchtenburg points out that Wilson's, "success in ending [the war] as quickly and as deftly as he did stands as one of his greatest achievements." It was Wilson's demand for surrender from Germany rather than "peace negotiations" that ended the war when it did. As Leuchtenburg notes, "Wilson's firm stand, and his indication that he would look favorably on a [German] Republic, helped precipitate the abdication of the Kaiser on November 9, 1918."

Wilson's eventually futile effort to create a League of Nations with the United States as a charter member marred his second term.  Wilson's stubbornness in demanding that his entire plan be adopted, and his unwillingness to compromise, are widely considered his biggest failures. But Leuchtenburg also cites a political mistake often overlooked in the study of the League: Leuchtenburg says that Wilson made, "a grave mistake: he asked Americans to keep Democrats in power [in the 1918 mid-term elections] as evidence of their support of his conduct and prosecution of the war. His statement was an egregious misstep for a man who had spent a lifetime studying political behavior...that the party in power can almost always expect to lose votes in a mid-term election...Wilson's appeal for confidence probably neither lost nor won him votes [at the polls], but it had colossal consequences. He had all but invited Republicans to regard him as their enemy, and the miscarriage of his challenge meant that he would be bargaining with the great powers [in France] in a few weeks [at Versailles] having been, by his own reckoning, disowned. Furthermore, any treaty he did negotiate would have to get by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, whose chairman, as a consequence of the elections, would shortly be his implacable foe, Henry Cabot Lodge."

On November 18, 1918, Wilson startled the country by announcing he would head up American delegation to Paris personally. No president had ever left the United States by crossing an ocean. Inexplicably, Wilson did not select one United States senator [the Senate would need to ratify any treaty] and only a token Republican to the American delegation. Leuchtenburg makes an interesting suggestion - Wilson could have chosen Taft as a delegate. Leuchtenburg concludes, however, that Wilson wouldn't do that because, "he wanted total control in Paris and refused to acknowledge that, to get the peace treaty ratified, he would need bipartisan support."

Subsequently, in March 1919, Lodge announced that Republicans already had the votes needed to block the treaty -  and this was even before it has been signed. Wilson was defiant. For Wilson, "It seemed inconceivable to him that the United States Senate, in order to avoid membership in the League, would go to the extreme of rejecting the peace treaty altogether."

Thinking he could bypass the Senate and go directly to the American people, on September 3, 1919, Wilson began his ill-fated three-week tour of the country to muster support for the Versailles Treaty. Leuchtenburg notes, "Again and again on his mission, he spelled out in a Manichaean mode what would ensue if the Treaty was not ratified." While his audiences were ecstatic in their support, Leuchtenburg says Wilson's words actually hardened the opposition in Washington. "Instead of attempting to coax senators to his side, he lashed out at them, and more than once descended to demagoguery."

Wilson's subsequent stroke and incapacitation have long been cited as one of the great traumas in the functioning of the American presidency. John Milton Cooper, Jr. wrote, "Wilson's stroke caused the worst crisis of presidential disability in American history. Out of a dynamic, resourceful leader emerged an emotionally unstable, delusional creature." And Leuchtenburg agrees, writing, "From October 1919 until the end of his term in March 1921, the United States did not have, in any meaningful sense, a president....Laws took effect without his signature because he could barely achieve a scrawl. Major events transpired - race riots that claimed more than a hundred lives; the Palmer raids launched by Wilson's attorney general, who ran roughshod over civil liberties during the Red Scare; the thorny reconversion from a war to a peace economy - with no input from the president, or, sometimes, even any recognition that they were happening." As an example, Leuchtenburg cites the Volstead Act [to enforce the 19th Amendment]. "Wilson's' veto of the Volstead Act enforcing Prohibition [which was quickly overridden] was actually prepared by Wilson aide Joe Tumulty and sent up to the Hill bearing the name of the president, who knew nothing about it."
Incredibly, Wilson considered a third term. Leuchtenburg notes, "Despite his affliction, Wilson actively sought re-nomination for a third term in 1920 and seriously expected that the Democrats would give it to him. He even made notes on the membership of the cabinet he planned to appoint in his forthcoming administration. He had no comprehension of how many Americans despised him or of what an albatross he had become to the party."

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