The President as Statesman: Woodrow Wilson and the Constitution
Wasniewski, Matthew A., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
The President as Statesman: Woodrow Wilson and the Constitution. By DANIEL D. STID. American Political Thought. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998. xi, 231 pp. $35.00.
WOODROW WILSON "was not a small man, and he still evokes strong reactions one way or the other," Arthur Link once observed. For Wilson's most admiring biographer, it was a rare understatement.
Indeed, Wilson's legacy inspires fevered, pitched, and partisan interpretations. Much to Daniel D. Stid's credit, his important book, The President as Statesman, does not descend into the often counterproductive squabble between Wilson's defenders and critics. Stid writes as both political scientist and historian analyzing Wilson's bold attempts to reform party politics and to contend with the constitutional separation of powers. He provides ample documentation, based largely on Wilson's own writings as both an academic and politician.
This sympathetic but insightful study traces Wilson's ideas about political reform from his rise as a respected political scientist and Princeton academic to the presidency of the United States. The author soundly interprets the lifelong tension between Wilson's theory of domestic political reform and his practice of it. Stid accentuates "the moderation of Wilson's statesmanship, his persistent ambivalence regarding his program for `responsible government under the Constitution,' and the resilience of the separation of powers" (p. 5). But he is less than convincing on the issue of Wilson's wartime wrangling with the constitutional separation of powers.
Stid finds Wilson's substantial body of writings on political reform more genuine than do revisionist critics, who view them as mere theoretical camouflage for empowering the executive at the expense of the parties and Congress. But the author acknowledges that tension always existed between Wilson's theories of progressive governance and his political instincts. As both scholar and president he adapted his ideals to fit his strategies. In his influential Congressional Government (1885), Wilson proposed a presidential cabinet composed of congressional leaders (based on Walter Bagehot's ideas) that might more effectively craft legislation. Theodore Roosevelt's strong leadership convinced him otherwise. In Constitutional Government (1907), Wilson advocated that only an assertive executive could elevate partisan politics and harness them for progressive reform.
Stid maintains that Wilson believed in using high principles and policy goals rather than the lure of patronage and political power to build support and unite party members. But pragmatism and expediency also characterized Wilson's domestic agenda. His constructive personal leadership won passage of major New Freedom reforms such as the antitrust legislation contained in the Clayton and Federal Trade Commission acts. Like no president before, Wilson engaged Congress, worked compromises between party factions, used the press to focus public opinion on the issues, and told Democratic lawmakers in no uncertain terms what he thought constituted the public interest. This scenario nearly embodied his ideal, "to have a wise and visionary leader, supported by a principled political party, draw together the executive and legislative branches that Wilson believed the Founders had impractically separated" (p. 1).
Wilson also resorted to the carrot-andstick approach to maintain party discipline. Though he later regretted it, he dispensed appointments to secure Democratic votes for the New Freedom. Such actions violated his ideals, not to mention a 1912 campaign promise to appoint "progressives, and only progressives." Ironically, Wilson's recommitment to rid his party of patronage after the 1916 election divided Democrats and Progressives, an already fragile coalition that soon unraveled over the issues of American neutrality and intervention in World War I. …