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Woodrow Wilson Brought New Executive Style To The White House


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross.


GLEN BECK: Today is the happiest day of the year for me. Today is the day that in 1924 Woodrow Wilson died - that son of a bitch and I'm happy.

BIANCULLI: That was Glenn Beck recorded February 2012. It was hardly the only time he railed against America's 20th president Woodrow Wilson. It's just one example, a particularly colorful one, of how Wilson has remained a divisive figure even though he left the White House back in 1921 after serving two terms. He signed into law a progressive income tax and oversaw the creation of the Federal Reserve Bank. He ran for reelection with the slogan, he helped keep us out of war,- World War I. But in his second term he led the country into that war, saying we had to make the world safe for democracy. That ended America's isolationism and ushered in a new era of American military and foreign-policy. An era that is increasingly controversial and complicated even today. Today's guest A. Scott Berg has written a biography of Wilson - titled "Wilson," which is now out in paperback. Berg is the first scholar to have access to two sets of papers - hundreds of Wilson's personal letters and the papers of Wilson's doctor and close friend Cary Grayson. Berg also is the author of a Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Charles Lindbergh. His biography of editor Maxwell Perkins won a National Book Critics Circle Award. Terry Gross spoke with A. Scott Berg last year.



A. Scott Berg welcome to FRESH AIR.

A. SCOTT BERG: Thank you. Very happy to be back with you.

GROSS: So since Woodrow Wilson remains so controversial, tell us what he represents to the right, or what you think he represents to the right.

BERG: Well, I'm not entirely clear, but I think here we are a century after Wilson's inauguration, and I think he still remains the most successful extremely progressive figure we've had in American politics. He certainly redefined the role of government, the federal government most particularly, in our daily lives, and I think this is - I think both those things, his success and that intervention, is what makes the right so crazy.

This is just a personal comment, but I think maybe there's just a little too much idealism to Woodrow Wilson as well, but I don't want to characterize the right as being un-idealistic.

GROSS: So you think that the progressive politics and his success at pushing through some of his progressive agenda is what he's admired for and what he's hated for?

BERG: I think that - I think yes on both counts, because it was a new way in which the government was functioning, and the government had greater latitude in our daily lives.

GROSS: So let's talk a little bit about some of the economic reforms that he pushed through. When he's elected, his priority is an economic agenda and what he describes as the new freedom. What were some of the things that he advocated and then got passed through Congress?

BERG: Yes, this new freedom we hear about, which was the moniker attached to his administration, was almost entirely an economic freedom that he was talking about, and largely, and this is a theme that runs throughout Woodrow Wilson's life, Wilson believed in leveling the playing field. He believed this when he was fighting the club system back when he was the president of Princeton University, but he was also fighting it throughout his administration.

He wasn't just a trust buster. He just, he didn't - he wasn't anti-big business. He was a man, however, who felt every American should have an equal shot at opportunity. So that being the case, the very first thing he came in with on his new freedom agenda, and this doesn't sound very sexy, but it had to do with tariff reform.

And he just felt that the tariffs, the way they were being operated, the way they were being manipulated by a lot of rich senators, in fact, the average American was paying more than he should be. And he wanted to lower those tariffs and ultimately get rid of a lot, if not most, of them and replace that with an income tax, a graduated income tax in which there would be, and this is another bugaboo for the right wing, I think, a redistribution of wealth.

So that was the first item on the bill.

GROSS: And I should say he thought the tariffs were protective tariffs, that they were there so that American manufacturers could charge higher prices because imports would be even higher priced.

BERG: That's exactly right, and yet there were commodities such as sugar, in which, you know, everybody used sugar but was paying something for it. And Wilson's idea was if we can lower the tariff on sugar, on cotton, on wool and so forth, then people can buy goods that they use and need regularly and not be taxed that way.

And doesn't it make more sense, in leveling the playing field, he thought, if indeed the richer people were paying more on their income? So that was the tariff reform. Perhaps the most important legacy from the new freedom was the Federal Reserve system, which Wilson felt very strongly about, and this was a kind of way in which the federal government could at least have some oversight.

You know, there had been a panic in 1907, and in fact a few millionaires really bailed out the United States of America. Banker J.P. Morgan had really more economic power than anybody in the world at that point. And this really seemed terrifying to Woodrow Wilson. And once again he wanted to redistribute some of the wealth. He wanted to take some of the importance that these few East Coast banks had and he wanted to give people in the South, farmers in the West and so forth, to have greater opportunity to borrow money and basically to have credit.

GROSS: And the Federal Reserve Bank is still controversial. There's a movement on the right to abolish the Federal Reserve.

BERG: Well, there you have. You know, we're 100 years later, the right is fighting Woodrow Wilson yet again.

GROSS: So the things that you mentioned he succeeds in getting passed by Congress - the end of the tariff, the start of a progressive income tax, the start of the Federal Reserve Bank.

BERG: He succeeds in a big way, and one of the interesting things also has to do with the way in which he did it. And Wilson really came in and redefined presidential power and the way it could and perhaps should be used. Wilson, you have to remember, was a student of government, of American government. He had written a dozen books, basically, on the way the American political system and governmental system worked.

In knowing that, he felt the presidency was largely undefined, and he thought it could be the most important position in the United States government, but at that point the Senate really was controlling things, along with the House. Wilson believed that the two branches of government - that is, the executive branch and the legislative branches - should cooperate, and I mean that quite literally, they should co-operate the government.

And as a result of that, Wilson brought a whole new style of being the executive to the United States. For example, whenever he had a really important measure to discuss, such as tariff or the Federal Reserve system, he would leave the White House, come down to the Congress, he would call a joint session of Congress.

I mean imagine, the president called 25 joint sessions of the Congress during his administration. And then he would hang around. He didn't just deliver a speech, which presidents had not done in person for over a century, not since John Adams had left office in 1801. So in these visits Wilson would pay, there is a room in the Congress called the President's Room. It's a room that nobody has ever used except Woodrow Wilson for ceremonial purposes.

Wilson used to come down to this President's Room, which is literally just feet off of the Senate floor, and he would sit there, sometimes four, five times a day after he had given an important speech, and he would twist arms. He would capture senators as they walked out. He would invite them in. He would have long conferences with them. He would horse-trade. He would do anything he conceivably could to pass this agenda.

GROSS: And speaking of his agenda, one more thing on his agenda I want to mention, because it again has such parallels to today, campaign finance reform. He wanted to prohibit any corporation from contributing to a campaign fund and wanted to limit personal campaign contributions. Did he succeed?

BERG: Well, not really. You know, to some extent he at least put the idea out there, and he stuck to it. But you know, here we are still fighting about this. But it makes the larger point, I think, however, which is that again Woodrow Wilson was really looking out for the average American.

Wilson didn't come into politics until he was in his mid-50s, and that was largely because he had a career as a college professor, which he got shunted into, he felt, because he didn't come from great wealth, and even though since he was a child he wanted to serve in the United States government, he just felt that you had to be a rich man to do that. And really, he walked into government through a back door and had the most meteoric rise in American history.

GROSS: Right, he was a professor at Princeton then the head of Princeton University, governor of New Jersey for less than two years when he's elected president.

BERG: That's correct. It's absolutely astonishing: 20 years at Princeton alone, another 10 year in academia before that.

GROSS: The new freedom, the economic agenda that Woodrow Wilson pushed through, was written with the help of Louis Brandeis, who then Wilson nominates to the Supreme Court, and Brandeis becomes the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice.

So we have President Woodrow Wilson, who puts a Jew on the Supreme Court, really has economic policies that he wants to support the average person in America, but when it comes to African-Americans, very backwards. Let's start with Princeton. In Princeton, this is one of the only colleges, or Ivy League colleges, at that point that isn't admitting African-Americans when he's president.

BERG: Yes. Although I hasten to add that a lot of the Ivy League schools, and indeed a lot of schools in America, were not adding a lot of African-Americans, but at least the doors were open. I think we have to go back a little before that, though, well, in fact way back, which is one has to remember that Woodrow Wilson was born in 1856 in Virginia and grew up in four states of the Confederacy.

So this was a Southern boy from the Old South, before the Civil War, during the Civil War and during Reconstruction. So he grew up with a certain society. That being said, if you asked me if I think Woodrow Wilson is racist, I would say, yes, of course, I think he was. When I - if I were to ask that question of somebody 100 years ago, I think people would find him quite centrist, in a way.

Now Princeton University, when he became president, was an extremely Southern college in many ways. It had - half its student body was in fact from the South. And he was very mindful not of keeping blacks out for the sake of keeping them out, but really he just felt that society, the Princeton society, and indeed most of the country, was not yet ready for integration.

And that carries through into his presidency, as well. Wilson, I don't think, had any animosity toward African-Americans. And in fact when he ran for president in 1912, the African-American vote got behind Wilson because he said some very positive things. He made it sound as though a door was finally going to be open.

And a little like Richard Nixon - saying it required Nixon to open the door to China, a lot of the African-Americans felt, gee, it'll take our first Southerner in decades, really, to open the door for us. And Wilson did say a lot of good things, but he really didn't act on them. I think largely it was political, I should say, and I think it's related to his very ambitious new freedom agenda, for which he really needed the Southern bloc of Democrats to support him in a big way.

And they made it very clear that if he was going to start integrating everywhere, they were - he was not going to get anywhere with his agenda.

GROSS: Well, he allowed his Cabinet members to segregate their offices.

BERG: He did, and this is the start of the slippery slope.

GROSS: And by segregate, do we mean not hiring any African-Americans or keeping the African-Americans in a place separate from the white staff?

BERG: That's exactly what we mean. Wilson, Wilson truly did believe in advancing the African-American in this country. He just didn't believe the country was ready at that time. And he often said it will take another generation or probably two generations before these things can happen.

You know, it was still considered, especially in the South, just anathema for - that a white woman might have to work for a black man. I mean, this was - you just - it was unfathomable. And so Wilson's secretary of the treasury and Wilson's postmaster general did integrate the Treasury Departments and the post office. And that did mean that they hired people, but they had lesser jobs, generally, and they worked in different offices.

The sad part of this, and this is the real strike against Wilson and why the African-Americans justifiably turned on him, was that there had been a few inroads made in integration in those governmental offices already, and it was a shame to see that there had been some pullback.

But you know, again, this is, this is 50 years after the Civil War. There were still veterans alive who had fought in that war. And they, they just weren't ready to give in. I think they were still fighting the war.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is A. Scott Berg. He's written a new biography of Woodrow Wilson. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more about Wilson. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is A. Scott Berg, and after writing biographies of Charles Lindbergh and Samuel Goldwyn, Katherine Hepburn, now he's written a new biography of Woodrow Wilson.

Woodrow Wilson wins the presidency in 1912 running against Taft and Teddy Roosevelt, who ran on the Progressive Party. He pushes through some of his economic legislation that we talked about earlier, and then, you know, war is breaking out in Europe. Wilson does not want to be pulled into World War I. Why was he so adamant during his first term against being pulled into the war?

BERG: Well, I think this begins with his own childhood. Again, this was a boy who grew up in the South. He's the only president we've ever had, you see, who grew up basically in a nation that was defeated in a war. And that was the Confederate States of America.

He saw just - he saw cities burned down. I mean, he saw how society was completely ravaged. And, you know, he used to say nobody needs to explain anything about the South to me. It's the one part of the country I know. And part of what he knew was that devastation. And he never wanted to see that repeated again. I mean, he really is one of the few presidents who knew what war was going to wreak. So that was one factor, I think.

The second was, don't forget we had over a century, almost two centuries, of an isolationist tradition at that point. And he wanted to avoid foreign entanglements, and I think this was a great concern. And the question was - Is this an American war? And then the bigger question became - Is this a war that we have to get entangled in, or are we in fact already entangled because the world has shrunk in the last 10 years because of transportation, communication.

He's beginning to ask questions himself whether a country, any country, certainly a growing and mighty country like the United States, can avoid international crises anymore. We have economic entanglements everywhere. We did at that point. And above all, I think Wilson felt this was not a necessary war, not just for America but for the world.

He felt a lot of it was just a lot of European posturing of these autocracies of kings and emperors, most of whom were related. I often thought many of them were just fighting over who was grandma, Queen Victoria's, favorite grandson.

GROSS: He said he saw neutrality as a badge of splendid courage of reserve moral force. And he said there's such a thing as a man being too proud to fight. There is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not to convince others by force that it is right. What was he talking about?

BERG: Well, I think that's pretty intense. You know, over the first few years of the war, we could stay out in the beginning, but then bit by bit, you know, the thing - Americans were losing their lives in non-combat, that is the Lusitania was sunk in 1915, and American lives went down. The Germans were involved in a very aggressive torpedo campaign, and boat by boat we would lose Americans.

The jingoists, such as Theodore Roosevelt, were pounding their fists to heaven and saying we've got to get into this war, and Wilson kept urging restraint. He kept saying we must remain neutral not just in our actions but even in our thoughts, he said.

Now a lot of this was just Wilson posturing in his own way because he believed so deeply in keeping us out of the war. But as he later admitted, he saw the inevitability of it quite early. He was just trying to do everything he could to stall our entrance, however.

BIANCULLI: Author A. Scott Berg speaking to Terry Gross in 2013. His Biography of Woodrow Wilson tilted, "Wilson" is now out in paperback. We'll continue their conversation in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli and this FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. Back with more of Terry's 2013 interview with author A. Scott Berg. His biography of Woodrow Wilson titled, "Wilson" is now out in paperback.

Wilson was elected president in 1912 and served two terms. His priority when taking office was progressive economic reform, including the creation of the Federal Reserve Bank. World War I forced his agenda to change. In his first term he maintained America's neutrality. His campaign slogan, he kept us out of war, helped him get reelected. But his position changed in his second term.

GROSS: Eventually, Wilson figures we have - America has to get involved in the war. What changes in his mind that makes war, in Wilson's mind, now the correct thing to do after he avoided it, after he campaigned against getting involved?

BERG: Increasingly, of course, American lives were being lost, so that was definitely a factor.

GROSS: At sea, they were being lost?

BERG: Yes. They were being lost at sea in ships that were being torpedoed, and so innocent Americans were going down. During these years, Wilson is also building up the country through his oratory and he's starting to build up just American morale, getting us ready for the possibility of going to war. And I think in realizing the might of the nation, he began to think of the morality of things too, and this is the moment that really American foreign policy changes big time. And it is almost entirely Woodrow Wilson introducing - imposing, if you will - his own sense of morality. Such that on April 2nd, 1917 - that is just, you know, weeks after Wilson has taken his second presidential oath - he declares in a joint session of Congress that America has to go to war. And the central argument in that speech is - the world must be made safe for democracy.

And essentially, all American foreign policy to this day - and I mean literally today - goes back to that one sentence in that one speech. And I think this was just the growing morality within Wilson, something he always had but he finally brought it to a point where there was a world vision attached to it.

GROSS: So Congress votes to take America to war and you're right, after Wilson wins that vote he weeps.

BERG: He does. Wilson goes back to the White House, goes into his office and just puts his head on the table and just weeps. And his secretary, Joseph Tumulty, who was a witness to that, and he said he just wept like a little boy. Again, I think he knew he was basically signing the death warrants for thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of men.

GROSS: So Wilson becomes one of the main writers of the peace treaty that's approved in Paris, which incorporates his vision for the League of Nations. But in one of the greatest like ironies and heartbreaking scenarios of his life, the U.S. Congress never passes the treaty. We never become a signatory of the treaty; the U.S. never joins the League of Nations. Can you talk about the opposition that the treaty faced in the U.S. Senate?

BERG: It was fearsome. I mean we think partisan politics are bad today - and they are - I don't want to be glib to say they were twice as bad then, but they were pretty terrible. And there was the Republican leader of the Senate who is the dean of the Senate at that point, Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, I found doing my research that there were documents in which Lodge and a couple of other Republicans were talking about opposing any peace that Wilson brought back from Paris, no matter what it was. I think there was a great sentiment within the Republican Party at that point that basically Wilson, the Democrats, had fought and won the war. So now, by gum, the Republicans were going to win the peace, and so whatever Wilson had was simply not going to fly.

That being said, I think there were certainly a lot of people who in the Republican Party, and even a few in the Democratic Party, who did not wholeheartedly embrace the treaty. It was not a perfect treaty by any means as indeed it entailed 25 nations all contributing to this peace.

GROSS: So he decides to take the issue to the American people. And he embarks on a tour, trying to talk up the peace plan to the American people and he gets really sick. He basically has a stroke. He embarks on this tour against his doctor's orders and his doctor is a close friend as well as his doctor. What are the consequences of this stroke?

BERG: The consequences are grave and almost sent him to his grave, in fact. Indeed, everybody advised him against going on this tour, which was a way of, he thought, circumventing the Senate. I mean, he was obviously a student of the American Constitution, so he knew all treaties had to be ratified by the Senate. But he thought if he could get popular support behind him he could have his way. So he went on this 29 city tour and about two thirds of the way through - and this was the dead of summer, I mean the heat was terrible, he was traveling by train, these were the days of un-air-conditioned trains, when they were basically, you know, traveling ovens. And Wilson was just giving speech after speech, sometimes four a day, just to sell the country on his League of Nations, and on the treaty in general. And indeed, just outside of Pueblo, Colorado, after he had delivered a sort of faltering speech for one of the first times in his life, he literally just collapsed on the train and they decided, the doctor just stepped in and said there's no more discussion here, we have to take you back to Washington right away.

GROSS: Physically he's paralyzed on one side as a result of this stroke.

BERG: Yes. He didn't have the stroke on the train, but a few days after returning to Washington, he did have a stroke. It did paralyze his left side. He did not lose powers of speech and really, his mind didn't go. And so now here's Wilson suffering physically, emotionally - to some extent we have to presume mentally as well, because even in his extremely compromised physical state, I mean he can barely walk and for months he doesn't get out of bed, but he's already contemplating running for a third term.

GROSS: Yeah, which just struck me as just not only delusional, but unconscionable. I, you know...

BERG: Yeah.

GROSS: I mean when you're unable to function at a presidential level, to consider - or hardly any level, and to consider running for president just seems so unfair to your country. But, after he's incapacitated by this stroke, what you describe as a conspiracy takes over. His wife and his doctors basically agree that no one will know, no one's to know how sick he is, how incapacitated he is, the Cabinet doesn't know. Does his vice president even know?

BERG: For a long time the vice president did not know. And I do characterize it as a conspiracy. I think they considered it a benign conspiracy. It's not as if Mrs. Wilson was Lady Macbeth and was trying to seize power so that she could run the country. It was simply that she saw herself as Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, and the doctors said that any great emotional trauma is really going to affect the president's health. And she decided well, I must do everything to keep anything that might excite him away from him. And, of course, as she also said to one of the doctors, but everything the president does excites the president because that's part of the job is putting out fires all the time. And one of the doctors actually said, you know, he's been training you over the last few years. He's been teaching you a lot about how things work in government and in this White House in particular, and perhaps you could be the gatekeeper, perhaps you could determine who gets in to see the president and who doesn't - which nobody did for months, but you could also read every document that comes across his desk and decide which ones he even considers.

GROSS: So how much of this capacity does Wilson ever get back?

BERG: Well, he was never physically back. He remained hemiplegic for the rest of his life. He walked with a stick. Again, he could still speak, which was quite remarkable, and he could think. But the truth of the matter is he never did bounce back.

GROSS: So Wilson's term ends with him being, you know, kind of incapacitated. Harding gets elected as the next president and Wilson's popularity surges after he's out of office.

BERG: It does. Now part of this had to do with the fact that Harding immediately revealed not only his mediocrity, but a lot less than that. And he died in office a few years later and all sorts of corruption was then revealed. So Wilson, from the day Harding took office, was looking better and better, as Harding became so regressive in so many ways and did everything he possibly could do undo everything Woodrow Wilson had done both economically and internationally. And I think people began to realize, you know, we had just had eight years of Woodrow Wilson, completely incorruptible. There had never been a whiff of scandal. And people were beginning to embrace all these ideals that Wilson had been talking about. He becomes this great symbol of humanity and integrity.

GROSS: Well, Scott Berg, congratulations on the book. Thank you so much for talking with us.

BERG: Thank you very much.

BIANCULLI: A. Scott Berg speaking to Terry Gross in 2013. His biography of Woodrow Wilson called "Wilson," is not out in paperback. Coming up a tribute to Jazz composer and band leader Gerald Wilson who died this week at age 96. This is FRESH AIR Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.