Ed Driscoll

'Don’t Tell Me Why I Hate Woodrow Wilson'

At Commentary, Jillian Kay Melchior explains why, like a growing number of conservatives and libertarians, she’s not too comfortable with the track-record of our 28th president:

Professor David Greenberg writes in Slate today that the conservative dislike of Woodrow Wilson is “confused,” “bad as an interpretation of the facts,” and “demonstrably inaccurate.” He implies elsewhere that it is a “crackpot history” that requires not only debunking but also ridicule. But beyond the blustery rhetoric, Greenberg only proves that he misunderstands conservatives’ beef with the 28th president.

Full disclosure: in 2009, I graduated from Hillsdale College – which Greenberg blames for influencing Glenn Beck and, therefore, fueling the Tea Party’s hatred of Woodrow Wilson. More particularly, I was a student of Ronald J. Pestritto, whom Greenberg cites as particularly influential in demonizing Wilson. Having sat in Dr. Pestritto’s classroom and painstakingly highlighted my way through his book on Wilson, I understand his critique quite well. (I am also gruesomely familiar with Dr. Pestritto’s rigorous grading standards, and I can say with some certainty that the quality of Greenberg’s argument here would have earned him academic casualties.) I will not presume to speak for Dr. Pestritto — he has made his own case comprehensively — but after learning from him, I can at least explain why I dislike Woodrow Wilson as a president. It’s for very different reasons than those Greenberg presumes to attribute to me.

Back to the Slate piece. The first several paragraphs can be skimmed, as the author bizarrely points out commonalities between Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush and faults Glenn Beck for once not knowing something before he learned it. In the fifth paragraph, Greenberg makes a minor concession to the “nub of truth amid the distortion of the right’s Wilson-bashing.” He acknowledges that Woodrow Wilson expanded the power of the presidency, a Tea Party complaint.

But in actuality, that is only a secondary reason why conservatives dislike Wilsonian liberalism. In a nutshell, Wilson introduced the idea of a “living” Constitution, opening up infinite opportunities for revisionists to throw off the delicate balances within government so thoughtfully established in the original text. Wilson’s scholarly background taught him to embrace big government as the solution to the problems of the citizenry. He saw himself as a philosopher-king, much like the one we have today. And inherent in that perception was a condescending elitism. He became the patriarch of American paternalism, justifying his behavior with appeals to “history” as he perceived it.

The Tea Party movement argues that because of their academic snobbery, those who follow in the footsteps of Woodrow Wilson have lost touch with liberty-loving Americans.

At the American Enterprise Institute blog, Jonah Goldberg writes, “It’s taken liberals a while, but they have finally begun rallying to the defense of Woodrow Wilson:”

Perhaps Glenn Beck has claimed that Progressivism and Wilson were unpopular, but that is not a claim Pestritto makes as far as I am aware. Nor does it appear anywhere in my book, Liberal Fascism. Indeed, I claim the exact opposite. Of course progressivism was popular. So was fascism. Indeed, all of the historical forces Greenberg attributes to rise of progressivism—industrialization, urbanization, centralization, etc.—are the same forces that fueled the rise of fascism.Indeed, what a strange defense for liberals to make. McCarthyism (which has its roots in the Wilson era, by the way) was popular, too. And yet, I don’t recall many liberals defending Tailgunner Joe on the grounds that the American people were behind him.

Lastly, liberals really need to make up their mind about whether they are going to own the progressive era or not. Hillary Clinton says she’s a “modern progressive” not a liberal. President Obama ostentatiously invoked the (racist eugenicist imperialist) progressives of the University of Wisconsin as an inspiration for his campaign. The Center for American Progress has launched a project to defend the Progressive Era from all detractors. But Greenberg wants to claim that serious people cannot take modern-day liberals at their word when they invoke their progressive forebears as an inspiration. I’ll take Obama’s word over Greenberg’s.

Speaking of Wilson, over the weekend, I finally watched Paris 1919, the 2009 Canadian docu-drama, which brilliantly assembles a mixture of well-cast and largely unknown actors with historic footage of the negotiations. Most of the interior shots are full color contemporary footage of actors in costume. The sweeping shots of post-World War I Paris, filled with millions of citizens, soldiers, press and tourists was an assemblage of black and white newsreel footage. Some of this footage was photographed astonishingly well, considering that movie making was still in its infancy. For Wilson’s arrival in Paris, a 35mm movie camera was bolted to the top of his carriage; the result was an astounding wide angle moving camera shot of Paris and the millions that greeted Wilson upon his arrival that still holds up remarkably well today.

I purchased the documentary after hearing Lionel Chetwynd rave about it at least twice  on Poliwood, the weekly PJTV show he co-hosts with Roger L. Simon. As Chetwynd has noted, the film really does highlight how badly Wilson was played by his French and British counterparts at the Paris peace talks. And how he allowed himself to be maneuvered into punitively raking a defeated Germany over the coals, thus setting — as the film explicitly notes — the stage for World War II. (In another case of the past as a prologue, the film also highlights Wilson giving the brush-off to a young Ho Chi Minh,  requesting Vietnam’s independence from France.)

Watching the making-of documentaries on the film’s DVD, which featured plenty of interviews with the French-Canadian filmmakers, it’s obvious that I’m not going to chatting them up on a National Review cruise anytime soon — it’s doubtful we would agree on much at all if we talked politics. And yet by staying true to the material, they did a remarkable job of highlighting the feet of clay of a progressive forefather. But then, perhaps one reason why Wilson has only recently come under serious scrutiny, is that so much of the decade of the teens — with the exception of the absolute biggest of historical strokes — the Titanic, World War I and the birth of prohibition — has largely been forgotten by popular history, which seems to start with the jazz age and the Crash.

I wonder why that is?