home > archive > 2003 > this article
The very worst president
By Bruce Walker
I have written in the past about the possible benefits of men like Douglas MacArthur being elected President, Dick Cheney being made Chief Justice or Bill Simon winning the California Governorship. These describe the theme of latent greatness in good Americans.
But what lies at the opposite end of goodness? Who was the very worst American president? Woodrow Wilson, perhaps the first true "liberal" of modern American politics, was a president so awful for America and for the world that it is worthwhile to recount as a cautionary tale some of his larger failures.
Begin with his election in 1912. Wilson received barely forty percent of the popular vote, with the two Republicans (T.R., of course, as a Bull Moose) collecting sixty percent of the vote. But that understates Wilson's utter lack of any mandate. The vote that Wilson received came largely from the South, where blacks could not vote and where Republicans were a threatened group.
How much of a one party state was the South then? Consider that while Theodore Roosevelt in 1904 was receiving almost sixty percent of the national vote, in some states of the South T.R. received less than ten percent of the vote, even less than five percent of the vote.
Wilson almost immediately began undoing the good work of past Republican administrations on black civil rights. The Leftist notion that Republicans once supported black civil rights and then stopped is just patently false: Republicans, if anything, were more solicitous of black rights in the period from 1876 to 1920 than they had been before then.
Blacks could, and did, serve as delegates to the Republican National Convention,
as federal officers appointed by Republican presidents, and even as Republican
congressmen. Only when the Democrats reacquired the White House in 1912,
did the gradual progress of blacks stop.
Woodrow adored The Birth of a Nation, which presents the Ku Klux Klan as a necessary post-Reconstruction force. He urged blacks to return to the cotton fields. He re-segregated the civil service. W.E.B. Dubois had broken ranks with other blacks to support a Democrat, rather than a Republican, in 1912. Dubois soon regretted his decision. Wilson reneged on his promise to create a national race commission (something that his Republican successor, the ever maligned Warren Harding, would do.)
Wilson's bigotry was not confined to blacks. He also loathed Orientals. His two Republican predecessors had carefully intervened to prevent anti-Japanese legislation from being enacted in West Coast states. They urged, quite properly, that slapping Japan - a growing industrial power that sought friendly relations with America - was a national security question.
Woodrow, however, made no such effort. As a consequence, the combination of strength and fairness which Theodore Roosevelt had used to improve relations with Japan, which was complemented by Taft - who was quite familiar with the Orient - was all squandered by Wilson.
Even after the horror of the Great War - when all decent people were grappling with ways to prevent another war - Wilson was destroying the possibility of bringing Japan into the company of western nations, a principal factor in the Second World War.
Japan in 1919 proposed to insert a quite reasonable clause inserted into the covenant of the League of Nations supporting the principle of racial equality. Alternatives to the proposed clause were rejected as unsatisfactory by the Japanese. Japan, like America, had been one of the major allied powers.
They forced a vote, and President Wilson, chairman of the League of Nations Commission, again attempted to avoid a vote. When it passed by a vote of eleven to six, Wilson claimed that the amendment had failed since the vote was not unanimous.
Wilson also appointed as Secretary of State that paragon of virtue, the virulently racist and anti-Semitic perennial Democrat nominee, William Jennings Bryan. His famous (or infamous) "Cross of Gold" speech referred to the same "New York Jews" that seem to have so troubled Harry Truman.
Wilson ran for reelection in 1916, campaigning on the slogan "He Kept Us Out of War." After he won and after he took his oath of office the second time, Wilson asked Congress to declare war on the Central Powers. In retrospect, we see Imperial Germany as a bad nation like Nazi Germany.
But in the Great War, there was no moral high ground. If ever there was a war in which America needed to remain neutral, and use its wealth and good offices to provide a lasting peace, this was the war. By entering the war, however, Wilson insured that Germans would view America as hostile to Germany.
As a consequence, the ghastly Treaty of Versailles caused quiet rage in Germany, deep cynicism in Italy, indifference in Communist Russia, apathy in France, and alienation in Japan. The three horrid totalitarianism systems of the Twentieth Century - Fascism, Communism, and National Socialism - each were helped mightily by Wilson's arrogance and ignorance.
Wilson, who deemed himself indispensable to mankind, concealed his mental incapacity just when the future of the human race was being hammered out in the salons of Europe. He failed, utterly completely and totally. Even honorable progressives, like LaGuardia, had almost unbridled contempt for Woodrow Wilson.
Charles Evans Hughes, who would later serve as one of the best Chief Justices in American history, almost won the 1916 election. Indeed, if blacks in the South had been allowed to vote, Hughes would have won a landslide in the popular vote. Had Hughes won, a hundred million or so lives would have been saved.
What can be said about Wilson? One of the least damaging parts of his awful eight years happened at the very beginning, when the Sixteenth Amendment was adopted, allowing a federal income tax.
Bruce Walker is a senior writer with Enter Stage Right. He is also a frequent
contributor to The Pragmatist and The Common Conservative.
Get weekly updates about new issues of ESR!
© 1996-2019, Enter Stage Right and/or its creators. All rights reserved.