Some things look solid, but are full of air: think paper mache stuff.
President Woodrow Wilson is still ranked by “presidential historians” as a top-ten or near top ten President. This is all you need to know to dismiss “presidential historians” and such surveys.
Woodrow Wilson was an unbending autocrat, secure in his own righteousness, mentally limited while lauded for intellect, fond of servile and fawning servants, while casting “friends” aside like tissue paper when he decided to do so. Wilson was a great man in his own mind and so the greater good, his own power, was foremost in his mind always.
Wilson loved the state, expanding state power, and hated the rights of the individual. He was a racist extremist even by the (very low) standards of his day. He bumbled us into the First World War, totally unnecessarily, after being reelected for keeping us out, then squandered the peace with Utopian schemes. He dislike women’s suffrage and supported votes for women only when he had to do so politically. When the atheist Bolshevik seized Russia and began a reign of unmitigated slaughter, in typical Wilsonian style, he sent just enough aid to make the Reds look good and not enough to threaten them. Wilson was nothing if not the grand gesture without substance.
He was the Paper Mache Man: brilliant on the outside, full of air on the inside. Woodrow Wilson managed to be a rotten head of state, governance, party, professor, and person. Because like is oft attracted to like, he found (in his second marriage) his equal in lies and in autocracy.
The second Mrs. Wilson was, when I went to school, lauded as protector of her husband. He had gone to the “people” to promote his League of Nations and had been stricken down. She helped him fight on as he recovered from a stroke: a model wife. In fact, the marvelous bit of revisionist history Edith and Woodrow shows that Mr. Wilson suffered a devastating stroke and was unable to perform his duties. Mrs. Edith Wilson intentionally kept the nation ignorant of the truth along with a pliable doctor and a hapless secretary. She allowed the government to drift during the crucial post-World War I period and encouraged her very ill husband in his worst tendencies.Levin points out (quite accurately) that stroke victims can become mentally less flexible, apt to stick to old opinions. Wilson before the stroke had been too cock sure, too self-righteous, but after the stroke, he doubled down on what he thought was right. As a result, he failed to compromise with his Republican opponents and gain passage of the Versailles treaty. Mrs. Wilson stood by his side making all his worse tendencies worse, leaving her with all the levers of power and a President of the United States totally dependent on her narrow, bigoted, ill informed impulses. Mrs. Wilson encouraged a totally disabled man to try for a third term. A man who should have resigned for the good of the nation was propped up and Mrs. Wilson acted as a proxy president, a role for which she was notably unfit.
Mrs. Edith Wilson isolated the President from his cabinet, his closest friends, and began a decades long slander of anyone who might steal glory from Mr. Wilson. She created a biography full of lies and a cooperative Hollywood made a money losing, but award winning film glorifying her husband. Some things do not change.
In any case, Phyllis Lee Levin has done us all a favor by peeling back generations of hagiography. Mrs. Edith Wilson gained control of all her husband’s papers and letters. She would not let anyone who had a letter from Mr. Wilson publish and hand picked a court biographer who created the initial view of the Wilson presidency. Mrs. Wilson lived just long enough to be gob-smacked by another fraud as President, John F. Kennedy.
Next income tax time, you can thank Mr. Wilson for the foolish idea that taxing income was better than a consumption tax. The income tax was another hollow notion that looked progressive on the outside and was empty on the inside. The 1040 is a gift from the Paper Mache Man. But don’t worry, “presidential historians” will vote him into the top ten again . . . Thanks to Mrs. Wilson’s lies and a credulous academy eager to see a great progressive as a hero.
Perhaps, mayhap, maybe we have a paper mache set of “presidential historians?”