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.
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.
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.
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).
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.”
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).
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.
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.
D. Lankford, Jr.
Byker Director, Writer, & Producer
Wilson Director, Cinematography, & Producer
Mrazek Writer & Producer