The Enduring Spirit of Wilson's Progressive Ideal ; the 28th President Still Influences America's Agenda

Article excerpt

It's almost 80 years since his death, but Woodrow Wilson has never seemed more relevant. Wilson was the first American president whose administration was defined by its foreign policy. Indeed, the very word "Wilsonian" has come to mean a certain kind of foreign policy, one promoting human rights, democracy, and collective security. Much of President Bush's current activity, especially regarding Iraq, is pure Wilsonian in its idealism.

Renowned historian H.W. Brands, who has written important biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt, skillfully tells the whole story of Wilson's life and casts him as one of the most important US presidents. And Brands does all this in fewer than 200 pages, making his smooth-flowing narrative easily accessible to the general reader.

Brands shows that Woodrow Wilson was destined to be an idealist. His father was a Presbyterian minister, and young Woodrow would practice speaking to an empty church after his father had preached to a full one. At Princeton University, he excelled at writing and oratory. He thought about becoming a lawyer, but hated law school and quit before graduating. Wilson's true love, Brands stresses, was studying how governments functioned.

Wilson's early career was as an academic, teaching at a couple of colleges before landing the presidency of Princeton in 1902. Brands describes how Wilson's type of liberalism fitted in perfectly with the reformist attitudes of the age: He championed education and spoke out against corruption in high places. With impeccable progressive credentials and no political baggage, he was selected by the Democratic Party bosses as a potential presidential candidate for 1912.

Brands points out the irony inherent in Wilson's selection by these party bosses. Here was Wilson speaking out against political corruption and party machines, yet he owed the beginnings of his political career to the very machine politics he railed against.

The bosses were proven right: Wilson was a great candidate and also, as Brands points out, a fortunate one. The Republicans split prior to the 1912 election. When the party nominated William Howard Taft, Teddy Roosevelt bolted and ran as a third-party candidate. With the opposition divided, Wilson was elected.

Brands skillfully depicts Wilson as the last political champion of the Progressive era. Wilson's reformist victories included the Clayton Anti-Trust Act, which established criminal penalties for corporate predatory practices. …