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Woodrow Wilson Brought New Executive Style To The White House

Woodrow Wilson, America's 28th president, left the White House in 1921 after serving two terms. But today he remains a divisive figure.

He's associated with a progressive income tax and the creation of the Federal Reserve. During his re-election bid, he campaigned on his efforts to keep us out of World War I, but in his second term, he led the country into that war, saying the U.S. had to make the world safe for democracy. The move ended America's isolationism and ushered in a new era of American military and foreign policy.

A. Scott Berg is the first scholar to have access to two sets of Wilson-related papers: hundreds of the president's personal letters; and the papers of his doctor and close friend, Cary Grayson. Berg's new book, Wilson, uses those papers to fill in missing pieces of the president's life.

Berg is also the author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Charles Lindbergh. He joins Fresh Air's Terry Gross to discuss how Wilson changed the role of president, and his groundbreaking decision to enter World War I.

Interview Highlights

On how Wilson changed the role of president

"Wilson really came in and redefined presidential power and the way that it could, and perhaps should, be used. Wilson, you have to remember, was a student of American government. He has written a dozen books, basically, on the way the American political system and governmental system worked.

"In knowing that, he felt that [the] presidency was largely undefined, and he thought it could be the most important position in the United States government, but at that point the Senate was really controlling things along with the House. Wilson believed that the two branches of government — that is, the executive branch and the legislative branches — should cooperate. And I mean that quite literally: They should co-operate the government. And as a result of that, Wilson brought a whole new style of being the executive to the United States."

On how the Civil War influenced Wilson

"He's the only president we've ever had, you see, who grew up, basically, in a nation that was defeated by a war — and that was the Confederate States of America. He saw cities burn down. He saw how society was completely ravaged, and he used to say, 'Nobody needs to explain anything about the South to me, it's the one part of the country I know.' And part of what he knew was that devastation, and he never wanted to see that repeated again. He really is one of the few presidents who knew what war was going to wreak."

On Wilson's groundbreaking decision to enter World War I

A. Scott Berg's other books include <em>Lindbergh;</em> <em>Goldwyn: A Biography;</em> <em>Max Perkins: Editor of Genius</em>; and <em>Kate Remembered</em>.
/ Courtesy of Aloma
Courtesy of Aloma
A. Scott Berg's other books include Lindbergh; Goldwyn: A Biography; Max Perkins: Editor of Genius; and Kate Remembered.

"This is the moment that, really, American foreign policy changes big time. It's almost entirely Woodrow Wilson introducing, imposing, if you will, his own sense of morality such that, on April 2, 1917 — that is, just weeks after Wilson has taken his second presidential oath — he declares in a joint session of Congress that America has to go to war. And the central argument in that speech is, 'The world must be made safe for democracy.'

"And, essentially, all American foreign policy to this day ... goes back to that one sentence in that one speech. ... He finally brought it to a point where there was a world vision attached to it. ...

"The first thing he was suggesting was that there is a certain moral component to the world, that the world thrives best under democracies. He felt that these autocratic empires, which were all in the process of toppling, basically took away from the human rights of people, and Wilson used that phrase on more than one occasion — 'human rights.' What he was getting at is we are no longer just citizens of the United States; we are all citizens of the world, and we've got to find a way to operate here."

On his vision for the League of Nations

"The vision was, and still is, a mighty one, I think, which is that there ought to be an almost Arthurian Round Table. There should be a kind of international parliament at which every country could sit. And, in fact, if there's some problem breaking out somewhere in the world, they could discuss it pre-emptively, and everyone would agree not to go to war until it has been discussed. And if the discussions did not work, there would be a notion of collective security. That is to say, they would all contribute to a kind of army that would, in essence, police the world when necessary. And this was a real idealistic vision, no question about it."

On Wilson's legacy, and why it bothers the right

"Here we are, a century after Wilson's inauguration, and I think he still remains the most successful, extremely progressive figure we've had in American politics. He certainly redefined the role of government — the federal government most particularly — in our daily lives. And I think both of those things, his success and that intervention, is what makes the right so crazy. ...

"It was a new way in which the government was functioning, and the government had greater latitude in our daily lives. ...

"Wilson believed in leveling the playing field. He believed this when he was fighting the club system back when he was the president of Princeton University, but he was also fighting it through his administration. He wasn't just a trust buster, he wasn't anti-big business; he was a man, however, who felt that every American should have an equal shot at opportunity."

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