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Woodrow Wilson has always been easy for liberals to like.  He was a reformer during the Progressive era, establishing an eight-hour workday, outlawing child labor, and busting trusts.  He instituted the federal income tax and the Federal Reserve System, and created the parameters of American foreign policy that remain with us today.  He also served as the great liberal link between Andrew Jackson and FDR, bringing the concept of a strong central government into the Democratic Party.  Indeed, he becomes something of a father figure for 20th century liberalism.

Many things, however, must be overlooked before awarding Wilson sainthood.  He ignored African-American issues, partly because of his acceptance, as a Southerner, of segregation.  He promised Americans during the election of 1916 that he would keep the country out of the European war, a promise he broke six months after the election.  Although Wilson eventually called for passage of 19th amendment, he had often shown himself indifferent and occasionally hostile to the suffragette movement.  And finally, he played into his political enemies’ hands by refusing to compromise on the League of Nations, resulting in no treaty whatsoever.  

Presented in two parts, Woodrow Wilson is a fascinating study of an intelligent and determined person.  Born in Staunton, Virginia in 1856, a Presbyterian background instilled both self-confidence and a sense of righteous purpose in young Tommy.  Intellectually, however, he developed slowly, probably because of dyslexia, and was still unable to read at the age of ten.  His parents continued to support him, nonetheless, and his studies improved enough to get him into Princeton and the University of Virginia.  He found his calling at John Hopkins, studying political science under Herbert Baxter Adams, and wrote the influential Congressional Government in 1885.  He married, became a popular teacher at Princeton, and eventually became the president of the university.  Indeed, when Wilson ran for governor of New Jersey in 1910, he had no political experience.  In 1912, the professor-turned-university president-turned-governor became the 28th president of the United States with 42% of the vote.   

The makers of Woodrow Wilson strive to paint a passionate portrait of the 28th president.  Commonly considered distant—a “cold fish”—and intellectually aloof, Wilson is reported to have been a warm and caring husband.  Excerpts are read from a number of love letters, and historians even suggest that he may have been a lusty fellow.  There is also evidence that he had some kind of affair with an acquaintance in Bermuda, and his courtship with his second wife is quite intriguing (his first wife died in 1914).

In 1915, Wilson secretly began dating Edith Balling Galt.  Because his wife had been dead less than a year, his advisors feared that word would get out and cause a scandal.  The 59-year-old President and the wealthy widow Galt were chauffeured on long drives beside the Potomac, sitting in the backseat of the Pierce Arrow, chatting and discussing important matters of state.   Eventually rumors did make their rounds.   Someone had apparently seen them “necking” while on a drive, and a Washington Post story reported that the President had been “entertaining Mrs. Galt.”  The Post, however, was recalled due to a typo that read, “entering Mrs. Galt.” 

The biggest black mark against Wilson, as far as liberals go, was the assault on civil liberties dating from the United States’ entry into World War I, and it is this part of Woodrow Wilson that also speaks to our own time.  The Espionage and Sedation Acts in 1917 and 1918 outlawed criticism of government policy, including—absurdly enough—anyone who obstructed the sale of liberty bonds.  “By arousing public opinion to such a pitch of excitement,” writes George Tindall in America: A Narrative History, “the war effort channeled the crusading zeal of progressivism into grotesque campaigns of ‘Americanism’ and witch-hunting.” German books were banned from schools, German music from local auditoriums.  Sauerkraut became “liberty cabbage.”  Thousands of socialists, communists, unionists, and “suspicious” foreigners were arrested, some without warrants, and a number were imprisoned and deported.  Socialist Eugene Debs was arrested for speaking against the war, and he would run for president from prison in 1920.  Wilson refused to pardon him, leaving the task to Republican Warren G. Harding (proving that even a bad president can do a good deed). 

A stroke incapacitated Wilson at the end of 1919, leaving the executive branch nearly rudderless during his last year in office.  Diagnosed with high blood pressure in 1906, the stress of the presidency finally wore him down.  The stroke increased his stubbornness, and he refused to allow the cabinet to meet without him (the cabinet would not meet at all for seven months).  Most of the business of the presidency was funneled through Edith Wilson who insulated him from anything that might excite him.  Indeed, his beloved League of Nations was finally rejected because he refused to compromise with archenemy Henry Cabot Lodge.

Woodrow Wilson offers a full biography of the 28th president, both captivating to watch and insightful in its presentation.  Commentary by a number of historians add context, and the rhythm of Linda Hunt’s narration seems perfectly balanced with the material.  Multiple film clips of Wilson, on tour and around the White House, also familiarize the viewer to his mannerisms, making him more real. Whatever one’s politics might be, or feelings about his accomplishments, American Experience creates a warm and perceptive portrait of Woodrow Wilson.

 Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.


  • Carl Byker                Director, Writer, & Producer
  • Mitch Wilson            Director, Cinematography, & Producer
  • David Mrazek           Writer & Producer
  • Richard Kassebaum    Producer
  • David Vanacore        Music
  • Victor Vanacore        Music
  • Linda Hunt               Narrator