Recently I’ve been working on a piece on Woodrow Wilson.* I plunged into the piece with two facts** and a general impression of stiff-spined moral rectitude.
I soon discovered that Wilson, like all of us, was a man of contradictions. A respected scholar who could not read until he was eleven. A college president who dropped out of school–twice–and talked his way into his PhD without meeting the formal requirements. A dignified (maybe even dour) man with a taste for limericks, a love of singing, and a self-confessed eye for a pretty girl. A Southerner whose childhood experience of Reconstruction shaped his vision of peace after World War I. A reformer whose progressive record is marred by his administration’s abysmal performance on racial issues. A man who won a Noble Peace Prize for what he believed was his greatest failure.
Here are some of my favorite bits about Wilson that didn’t make it into the article:
- His boyhood heroes were British statesmen John Bright and William Gladstone, both then in their political prime. He would sneak into the pulpit of his father’s church when no one was there and recite their speeches from the pulpit. Great training for a politician who was later known for the power of his oratory.
- Wilson taught himself to take shorthand when he was about sixteen. He also learned to work that new-fangled contraption, the typewriter. Throughout his career he wrote and then typed up his own speeches. Can you picture any recent president doing his own typing?
- Wilson liked to take a drive on Sunday afternoons. During World War I, Sundays were declared a “gas-less” day to help conserve fuel for the war effort. You could argue that giving the president a few hours of relaxation was a valid contribution to the war, but Wilson liked to lead by example. He left the car at the White House and took his drive in a horse-drawn surrey, accompanied by Secret Service agents on bicycles.
- My absolute all-time favorite Woodrow Wilson story, reported by Secret Service agent Edmund Starling in his memoir of the Wilson White House****: En route to his honeymoon destination with his second wife, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, the president was seen dancing a jig by himself and singing the chorus of a popular song: “Oh you beautiful doll! You great big beautiful doll…” Starling reports that the president even clicked his heels in the air. Look closely at the portrait of the president at the top of this post. Add a top hat, pushed back. Picture him dancing and singing. Makes me smile every dang time.
* Coming soon to an issue of History Channel magazine.
**Fact 1:Wilson was the president of Princeton before he became president of the United States. Fact 2: Wilson was a zealous promoter of a just peace after the end of World War I, including the creation of the League of Nations.***
***A great deal of what I knew about both the rectitude and Wilson’s aims for peace after World War I came from one of my favorite novels, Christopher Morley’s The Haunted Bookshop. Much as I love Morley’s book, A. Scott Berg’s recent bio, Wilson, is a much better source–and just as readable
****Not a new genre evidently.
Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress. Digital archives rule!