Presidential historian Richard Norton Smith put a face with a name Thursday evening, selecting Woodrow Wilson as the fourth and final former president to earn a place on his 20th century Mount Rushmore.
The crowd at the Dole Institute of Politics, 2350 Petefish Drive, was significantly smaller than it had been for the previous three lectures in Smith’s series. Poor weather and driving conditions made travel difficult for many Thursday, including Smith, whose arrival was delayed because of traffic issues. While more than 300 had attended the previous events during the past several weeks, a group of about 50 braved the winter storm for the series’ final installment.
Smith pegged Wilson’s presidency as a great story, though noted it is most commonly remembered as a tragedy.
“He was one of the most significant American presidents,” Smith said. “Period.”
The 28th president was first elected in 1912, the only person with a Ph.D. to ever earn the title. Smith talked about the progressive era during which Wilson led, also mentioning the president’s stance and approach to the first world war.
“He was an amazing wartime president,” Smith said. “He was willing to take real risks, political and otherwise, to try and keep this country out of the war.”
Apart from wartime politics, Wilson’s legacy would also include the establishment of the Federal Reserve Act and antitrust legislation that led to the creation of the Federal Trade Commission, Smith said.
Smith also noted Wilson’s health issues, citing his stroke during presidency as a possible turning point for the president’s public appeal. After his stroke, he made some unpopular political decisions.
“His reputation would have been higher had he resigned following the stroke,” Smith said. “But he was a remarkable leader, a remarkable human being. There’s never been a president like him. There will never be one like him. He failed as he succeeded: on a grand, historic scale.”
Wilson joins former presidents Ronald Reagan, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower on Smith’s 20th century Mount Rushmore.