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Book Launch: Woodrow Wilson: A Biography

November 10, 2009 // 2:00pm4:00pm

John Milton Cooper, Jr., E. Gordon Fox Professor of American Institutions, Department of History, University of Wisconsin-Madison, author; David S. Patterson, Former Chief Editor, Foreign Relations of the United States series; Leo P. Ribuffo, Society of the Cincinnati George Washington Distinguished Professor of History, George Washington University, commentators

At the institution that bears his name, scholars and the general public gathered on November 10 to celebrate the publication of Woodrow Wilson: A Biography.

Author John Milton Cooper, Jr. began his talk by highlighting the parallels between Wilson's presidency and the circumstances presently facing Barack Obama. The current president's struggle to reform health care, he said, resembled Wilson's push to establish the Federal Reserve Bank. Both were matters of great technical complexity, had significant implications for the overall economy, and were hotly contested by competing interests. Furthermore, the ambitiousness of Obama's goal was similar to Wilson's in pursuing the passage of the Underwood Tariff, a reduction in import taxes and implementation of the income tax that had eluded previous presidents. The two presidents also had similar temperaments. Both were eloquent, deeply thoughtful, and had a strong belief in self-control that concealed strongly felt emotions.

Wilson's lessons for the current president, Cooper said, were to be patient and willing to compromise, and to remain healthy. Cooper attributed Wilson's failure to win US participation in the League of Nations to a stroke he suffered in 1919. Afterward, the president's behavior became more stubborn and erratic, thereby foreclosing any possibility of constructive compromise.

Cooper said his research dispelled several myths about Wilson. The twenty-eighth president was neither a "wooly-headed idealist" nor a "religious zealot." Cooper believed that these mischaracterizations persisted because of Wilson's appearance and our modern intellectual and academic sensibilities. Today we do not grasp religiosity very well, for we assume the religious must be evangelical or fundamentalist. Wilson, in contrast, believed in God but took his faith for granted.

An important exception to this pattern was Wilson's decision to join Allied forces in fighting World War I. Part of his motivation was practical, Cooper said, as armed neutrality turned out to be unsatisfactory as government policy. But also important was Wilson's activist temperament and his intensely idealistic convictions. Statements such as "the right is more precious than peace" and "God helping her, she [the US] can do no other" (quoting Martin Luther) revealed the influence of his religiosity.

In his comments, David S. Patterson noted that Cooper's entire career had prepared him to write this biography, starting with his book on isolationism during the first world war and continuing through volumes about Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt; Walter Hines Page (Wilson's Ambassador to England); and the League of Nations. Cooper's work, Patterson said, showed that the author was neither an apologist nor a critic of Wilson. In this respect, Patterson was especially impressed with Cooper's struggle to portray Wilson's contradictory stances on civil liberties during the war.

Patterson criticized Cooper, however, for surrounding Wilson's policies with "an aura of inevitability." In the book, armed neutrality seemed to lead directly to war, and Cooper explained the failure of the U.S. to join the League of Nations by saying that it was "too soon" for the nation.

Commentator Leo P. Ribuffo began his presentation by placing Cooper's interpretation in the context of previous characterizations of Wilson. The president's contemporary, journalist H. L. Mencken, portrayed him as "Archangel Woodrow," the Puritanical leader with messianic ambitions. Subsequent characterizations included "the prophet without honor," so-called for his failure to secure US participation in the League of Nations; the victim of misguided legalism, for his unrealistic foreign policy; and a successor to Theodore Roosevelt in his righteousness and propensity to use force.

In contrast, Ribuffo said, Cooper "gets Wilson right." Cooper was correct in portraying Wilson as a theological liberal and a mainstream Progressive, committed to moderate regulation of commerce and desiring unity across class lines. Furthermore, Wilson's racism and relationships with women were typical for his time

Ribuffo was, however, less persuaded by Cooper's portrayal of Wilson as a "regular guy" or much of a reformer. Wilson lacked "the common touch" for interacting with people who lacked "breeding," Ribuffo said. Wilson's proposals for the economy were mild, not much different from his opponents', and he had a tendency for "bluff, blarney, and ambiguity" in foreign affairs that obscured more moderate positions. Ribuffo agreed with Cooper that Wilson was not a zealot and was more realistic than Theodore Roosevelt, but he wished that Cooper had greater sympathy for the idea that sometimes conflict is good.

During the general discussion, Wilson Center Fellow Kathleen Frydl, assistant professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, challenged Cooper's characterization of Wilson's racial views and foreign policy. Wilson took action to segregate the federal government, she noted, and his statements on international affairs tended "to sanctify self-interested politics with universal ideals," which she compared to George W. Bush's rhetoric. Frydl characterized Wilson as duplicitous, a person who would say one thing while his policies had different consequences.

Cooper responded that duplicity implied conscious intent to deceive, which he did not attribute to Wilson. Like other politicians, Wilson made compromises. In relation to foreign policy, he noted that imperialists such as Wilson generally do not care about the people being governed, but only about the effects of government policies on the US. Bush, he thought. more closely resembled Theodore Roosevelt.

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