The Passions of Woodrow Wilson

By Lasner, Lynn Fabian | Humanities, November/December 2001 | Go to article overview

The Passions of Woodrow Wilson


Lasner, Lynn Fabian, Humanities


HIS DREAM OF CREATING a lating peace was rejected by his own country but earned him admiration abroad and a Nobel Peace Prize.

The image is stiff-aquiline nose, steel-rimmed spectacles, pursed mouth. But a very different image of Woodrow Wilson emerges in a new documentary about the twenty-- eighth president.

"Wilson very definitely gave the impression of being a cold fish, but he was a deeply passionate man," says writer Louis Auchincloss. "He was passionate in his relationship with women. He was passionate in his relationship with his God. All that came from a kind of much-repressed but inward highly burning fire. . . . He believed that he was directed by God, and he frequently said so. He thought that God had made him president of the United States."

One of the things Wilson believed himself ordained to do was to create a new kind of world from the ashes of World War I, one committed to global peace. In the end, he wrecked his health and his dream evaporated.

His story is told in a documentary that airs on public television in January, Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of the American Century. The film has also been produced in an interactive format on DVD that allows viewers to explore topics related to Wilson, from the politics of the day to his love letters.

"A viewer is basically able to interrupt the film and get additional information," explains Douglas Varchol, producer and director of the interactive component. The program was supported by an NEH grant to KCET, Los Angeles, and by funds from The American Experience, WBGH, Boston. Using a DVD, the documentary can be seen in conjunction with almost two hours of interactive material. A companion website will be launched at the end of this year.

To investigate Wilson through the conventions of his times, a viewer has only to click a button and drill down to more detailed information. If a viewer wonders if the majority of pre-World War I America really wanted to go to war, getting the bigger picture is as easy as a tap on the handheld TV remote control or a click on the computer keyboard. Clicking on the "lesson plan" section brings up Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress, who voted "no" on U.S. entry into World War I. She was one of forty-nine members to do so. Wilson's rival and predecessor, Teddy Roosevelt, gets his say, too. He once called Wilson a "prime jackass," and said, "I'll skin him alive if he doesn't go to war."

If a viewer wants more, he or she can go the website to debate political views with fellow chat participants and cast a considered vote. Need more information? Computer users may go to www.pbs.org/amex/wilson and click on related links about European and American history.

Students can visit a living past through digital interviews with prominent historians, profiles of relevant historical characters, and thoughts from the film's creators. Mini-movies on issues such as progressivism, technology, racism, anti-- or pro-war sentiments, suffrage, and Congress bring the period into focus.

"When you are watching the documentary on TV, you are passively letting the information come in," says Jackie Kain, content executive for the' interactive media.

"When you are working on the computer, you're moving, you're making choices, and you're physically in a position to engage with the material. Basically, you are maximizing all the senses to take in the flow of information."

All of this helps the viewer understand Wilson-from a boyhood of dyslexia to his student days at Princeton and eventually the presidency of the university. His eloquence in that position would serve as a springboard to the governorship of New Jersey and then the presidency of the United States.

For a viewer who wants to know more about societal trends of the time, a click on the icon labeled "progressivism" produces other reformers of the day: William Jennings Bryan, the advocate of free silver and perennial presidential candidate; and Jane Addams, founder of Hull-House, pacifist, and women's suffragist. …

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