Professor-president

The troubles Woodrow Wilson, a former Hopkins graduate student, faced in the White House seem strikingly similar to ours as his 150th birthday passes

Profile//Woodrow Wilson

January 07, 2007|By Barksdale Maynard | Barksdale Maynard,Special to the Sun

As the 150th anniversary of Woodrow Wilson's birth was recently observed, the college professor who was educated in Baltimore and eventually became U.S. president seems more important - and more controversial - than ever.

Current events often bring up comparisons to Wilson's years in the White House (1913-1921). Bush's narrow election victory in 2004? It was the closest for any incumbent since Wilson's in 1916. Problems with Mexico? Wilson sent troops to protect the border against Pancho Villa. Debates about how to stop the genocide in Darfur? Wilson failed to prevent the Armenian genocide.

Wilson had the most important foreign policy idea of modern times: that the United States ought to spread democracy around the world.

"Wilsonianism" remains contentious today: Is it noble idealism or reckless meddling? "For a president who lived almost 100 years ago to have his ideas still being debated is remarkable," says Steven David, professor of international relations at the Johns Hopkins University. "People aren't talking about Hooverism."

America entered World War I because Wilson decided it should, and later he traveled to Paris for the 1919 Peace Conference - where, among other things, the nation of Iraq was carved out of the Ottoman Empire, with Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites thrown together. In a 2005 book, Jim Powell blames Wilson's decision to meddle in the European war for the eventual rise of Lenin, Stalin and Hitler and the deaths of millions. This is too sweeping, but historians agree that Wilson's policy of interventionism shaped key events of the 20th century and beyond.

For generations, critics have equated Wilsonianism with reckless idealism, as opposed to pragmatic "realism." "There are few epithets more damning in American politics than `Wilsonian'," says the foreign policy expert Max Boot. "It carries connotations of purblind self-righteousness, of senseless moralizing, of good intentions gone awry."

Did invading Iraq in 2003 and attempting to build a democracy there make George W. Bush a Wilsonian? In his second inaugural address Bush said, "It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world." Some remembered Wilson's call "to make the world safe for democracy."

But Bush staffers seem uncomfortable with the label. "I can't tell you," deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz once said, "how much I resent being called a Wilsonian."

The Bush presidency has triggered what Steven David calls a "debate about what Wilsonianism means and whether Iraq is an example of failed Wilsonianism." There is no escaping the historical parallels - "We're all Wilsonians now," the columnist Jonah Goldberg recently mused.

One thing is sure. His legacy still matters. In Baltimore and beyond, the college professor who became a president casts a long shadow through history.

As historians debate Wilson's legacy, they agree that Baltimore played a key role in his rise to fame and power.

The only American president ever to hold a doctorate, Wilson began his professional training in Baltimore in 1883, when he was 26. He studied history and political science as a graduate student at the new Johns Hopkins University, the first university in America that stressed research.

Wilson found Baltimore a "delightfully provincial town." He rented a little room at 909 McCulloh St., close to where Hopkins then stood. Mount Vernon Place was a short stroll to the east. At the "noble" Peabody Library he did research for what became his most important book, Congressional Government. Glancing up from his papers, Wilson made note of the Baltimoreans who came through the door: schoolgirls, "grimy mechanics," "grave gentlemen" and dandies in kid gloves.

In his free time, Wilson visited the Walters Art Gallery and attended the theater. For two hours every day he walked the streets for exercise. On Charles Street the young bachelor "saw more pretty women than I could count." He sang in the Unitarian Church choir and the Hopkins Glee Club. For Maryland's 250th anniversary celebration, the Glee Club learned an unfamiliar song, "The Star-Spangled Banner" by Baltimore's Francis Scott Key. Wilson, a tenor, was responsible for singing the "telling high note" at the end. Years later, President Wilson would remember the song fondly and propose it as a national anthem.

Virginia-born, Wilson planned to teach college somewhere below the Mason-Dixon Line and "grow up with the New South." But his career took him north, to Princeton University in New Jersey. In the 1890s, Hopkins invited him back each spring to give courses on governmental administration, where his dynamic teaching influenced many students. One was Frederick Jackson Turner, later a famous historian of the American West. Turner called Professor Wilson "homely, solemn, young, glum, but with that fire in his face and eye."

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