Archive for Friday, February 25, 2011

Presidential historian Richard Norton Smith: Woodrow Wilson succeeded, failed on historic scale

Wilson is Smith’s fourth pick for 20th century Mount Rushmore

February 25, 2011


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.


Bobo Fleming 7 years ago

I believe he was also a racist who ordered the Army segregated.

Bill Getz 7 years ago

Segregation in the armed forces wasn't an innovation of Woodrow Wilson, segregation of the Civil Service was. Wilson, a Virginian by birth known for spicing up his speeches to small groups with racist jokes which would today be considered beyond tasteless, appointed like-minded Southerners to his cabinet, including William McAdoo of North Carolina, who later became his son-in-law, to Treasury, and the notorious Texan Albert Burleson as Postmaster General. Both of these men segregated everyone from their office staffs down to fourth-class post offices. Previously, citizens had walked up to a single window in the local post office to buy stamps or send letters even in the South; no more. As Wilson left segregation of their departments to the discression of the cabinet secretaries, however, there were notably exceptions. William Wilson (no relation) refused to apply Jim Crow to the Department of Labor which he headed, just as he would later use his influence to oppose the deportation of aliens accused of " sedition" witihout due process. An admiarable if embattled figure, this other Wilson's record deserves to be better known.

Jimo 7 years ago

"Wilson joins former presidents Ronald Reagan, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower on Smith’s 20th century Mount Rushmore."

One sentence earlier:

"He failed as he succeeded: on a grand, historic scale.”


While hardly the man of Glenn Beck's clownish comic-book imagination, I don't think you can be "on Mount Rushmore" if you aren't a leader anyone would wish to emulate.

Bill Getz 7 years ago

Ah, but Wilson's insistence on "freedom' for predominant ethnic groups abroad, as against the strict national interest of the United States and its allies, has indeed been "emulated" by every American president since. The most recent example was Bush 43's schizophrenic combination of "Sturm und Drang"(we called it "shock and Awe") vs "nation building" in Iraq. I am obviously no fan of Wilson's foreign policy. But his influence cannot be denied BG

Fossick 7 years ago

Woodrow Wilson was the worst president in American history. Period.

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