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The Passions of Woodrow Wilson

By Lynn Fabian Lasner | HUMANITIES, November/December 2001 | Volume 22, Number 6

The image is stiff -- aquiline nose, steel-rimmed spectacles, pursed mouth. But a very different image of Woodrow Wilson emerges in a new documentary about the twenty-eighth president.

“Wilson very definitely gave the impression of being a cold fish, but he was a deeply passionate man,” says writer Louis Auchincloss. “He was passionate in his relationship with women. He was passionate in his relationship with his God. All that came from a kind of much-repressed but inward highly burning fire. . . . He believed that he was directed by God, and he frequently said so. He thought that God had made him president of the United States.”

One of the things Wilson believed himself ordained to do was to create a new kind of world from the ashes of World War I, one committed to global peace. In the end, he wrecked his health and his dream evaporated.

His story is told in a documentary that airs on public television in January, Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of the American Century. The film has also been produced in an interactive format on DVD that allows viewers to explore topics related to Wilson, from the politics of the day to his love letters.

“A viewer is basically able to interrupt the film and get additional information,” explains Douglas Varchol, producer and director of the interactive component. The program was supported by an NEH grant to KCET, Los Angeles, and by funds from The American Experience, WGBH, Boston. Using a DVD, the documentary can be seen in conjunction with almost two hours of interactive material. A companion website will be launched at the end of this year.

To investigate Wilson through the conventions of his times, a viewer has only to click a button and drill down to more detailed information. If a viewer wonders if the majority of pre-World War I America really wanted to go to war, getting the bigger picture is as easy as a tap on the handheld TV remote control or a click on the computer keyboard. Clicking on the “lesson plan” section brings up Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress, who voted “no” on U.S. entry into World War I. She was one of forty-nine members to do so. Wilson’s rival and predecessor, Teddy Roosevelt, gets his say, too. He once called Wilson a “prime jackass,” and said, “I'll skin him alive if he doesn’t go to war.”

If a viewer wants more, he or she can go the website to debate political views with fellow chat participants and cast a considered vote. Need more information? Computer users may go to www.pbs.org/amex/wilson and click on related links about European and American history.

Students can visit a living past through digital interviews with prominent historians, profiles of relevant historical characters, and thoughts from the film’s creators. Mini-movies on issues such as progressivism, technology, racism, anti- or pro-war sentiments, suffrage, and Congress bring the period into focus.

“When you are watching the docu-mentary on TV, you are passively letting the information come in,” says Jackie Kain, content executive for the interactive media. “When you are working on the computer, you’re moving, you’re making choices, and you’re physically in a position to engage with the material. Basically, you are maximizing all the senses to take in the flow of information.”

All of this helps the viewer understand Wilson -- from a boyhood of dyslexia to his student days at Princeton and eventually the presidency of the university. His eloquence in that position would serve as a springboard to the governorship of New Jersey and then the presidency of the United States.

For a viewer who wants to know more about societal trends of the time, a click on the icon labeled “progressivism” produces other reformers of the day: William Jennings Bryan, the advocate of free silver and perennial presidential candidate; and Jane Addams, founder of Hull-House, pacifist, and women’s suffragist.

The viewer can find more about the pacifist ideas of Wilson himself, who shifted his views in the gathering clouds of World War I. There is also Wilson the Southern gentleman, who as a boy saw Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, being hauled through town in chains. There is Wilson the political novice, who pushed through bills on corporate regulation and workman’s compensation to the dismay of the old guard that had elected him. For greater detail on topics such as legislative accomplishments, the viewer can link to other websites from the Wilson website.

The documentary reveals an aspect of Wilson’s character often obscured by his cerebral public image. “He was very academic, those steel-rimmed glasses, he always seemed very serious,” according to author Betty Caroli, “but he was an extremely passionate person.”

The relationship between Wilson and his wife Ellen is described by historian Thomas Knock as “probably the most romantic in presidential history.” While they were courting and Ellen was away in New York pursuing her art career, Woodrow wrote her letters almost every day. In one he wrote: “Soon, I will come myself, to claim you, to take possession of you -- of all the time and love you can give me; to take you in my arms and hold you. I tremble with a deep excitement when I think of it.”

The tenderness was reciprocated. Years later Ellen, who died in the White House, wrote to him: “My life has been the most remarkable life history that I have ever even read about -- and to think I have lived it with you! I love you, my dear, in every way you could wish to be loved. Deeply, tenderly, devotedly, passionately.”

“The big surprise for everyone involved,” says Joyce Campbell, pro-duction executive at KCET, “was to find such a passionate man, with deep attachments to women and family. Everyone has their own vibes about Wilson, based on American history class, but to find such an interesting personality was fascinating.”

His most visible part on the world stage would be played in a venture that would end for him in failure. The goal of his life, forged in World War I, was to create a world forum that would keep the quarrelsome nations of the planet from bloodshed. It would be a League of Nations. Wilson predicted, “The war we have just been through, though it was shot through with terror of every kind, is not to be compared with the war we would have to face next time. What the Germans used were toys as compared with what they would use in the next war.”

His efforts would bring him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1920. However, the Senate of the United States would reject his great dream. “He was a man who believed in this extraordinarily difficult goal,” observes historian Jay Winter. “And when he knew that he wouldn’t get there, the moment must have been devastating for him.”

Wilson had embarked on a strenuous tour across America to win popular support. His health, already precarious, became worse; he suffered a massive stroke. Five months later, the treaty to ratify the League of Nations went down to defeat in the U.S. Senate. “It probably would have been better if I had died last fall,” Wilson said on hearing the news.

With his illness, it fell to his second wife, Edith, to carry on many of the duties of the Presidency. “The word ‘stroke’ was never mentioned,” says historian Bert Park. “Certainly, the word ‘paralyzed’ was never mentioned. And the American public was kept effectively in the dark.” Wilson spent his last year as president watching newsreels with old friends. Among them was journalist Ray Baker. “Finally, the show was over,” Baker says. “The film had run its course. All that glory had faded away with a click and a sputter. It was to us sitting there as though the thread of life itself had snapped.”

Carl Byker, senior producer and co-director of the documentary with Mitch Wilson, explains why he found President Wilson of such interest: “At the very beginning of the twentieth century, he had a vision of how awful the century could be if we didn’t get a grip on ourselves, on our use of technology to kill each other. He was really among the first to say, ‘Let’s get together and figure out institutions, and figure out ways of dealing with each other that don’t involve killing each other.’ His drive to accomplish all that destroyed him. And so in terms of triumph and tragedy -- all the good things of good drama -- he’s an amazing character.”

Wilson wrote nine books and more than thirty-five articles on politics and history. In the words of historian John Cooper, “There’s no question that he was one of the five greatest presidents in American history. He has that rare combination, which he shares with . . . Jefferson and with Lincoln. That is, he was a tremendously effective, practical politician, and a very deep thinker.”

About the Author

Lynn Fabian Lasner is a writer in Mill Valley, California.

Funding Information

KCET received $1,123,076 from NEH for the making of the documentary Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of the American Century and its interactive materials.