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American Experience - Woodrow Wilson
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The Film & MoreFilm Description

On November 5, 1912, holed up in his home in Princeton, New Jersey, a former college professor and university president eagerly awaited the results of the nation's presidential elections. He read Browning to his family to pass the time. Late in the evening, a mad ringing of bells brought the news he wanted to hear. He, Thomas Woodrow Wilson, was to be the 28th president of the United States. Soon swarms of people invaded his yard. "Swaying torches made grotesque circles of light," his daughter remembered. "He was no longer my father," she wrote. "These people, strangers who had chosen him to be their leader, now claimed him. He belonged to them."

Woodrow Wilson explores the life of a political figure now widely considered one of the greatest Democratic presidents in American history. The film paints a vivid portrait of a complex man, a great orator and analytical thinker who was both emotionally dependent and physically fragile. It chronicles the major achievements and failings of Wilson's life. And it reveals what drove him to the decisions that defined his presidency -- the announcement of American involvement in World War I and his dogged support of the League of Nations, his advocacy on behalf of labor, yet his reluctance to advance the cause of African American civil rights or women's suffrage.

Ironically, the future president showed little promise in his youth. He was an average student and a directionless young man. He studied law, but found the work of an attorney unappealing. It was, he said, all "broken promises, wrecked estates, neglected trusts, unperformed duties, crimes, and quarrels." It wasn't until Wilson returned to school to study politics that he found his vocation.

With a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University and a young wife he adored, Wilson accepted a position at Princeton University. He prospered as a teacher, giving lectures around the country and developing a public persona that was articulate, scholarly and urbane. Over the next 25 years he was named president of Princeton, elected governor of New Jersey, and chosen by the American people as their president.

Aloof and restrained in public, Wilson obscured a passionate private side. He cherished his first and second wives dearly, but nonetheless was unfaithful. He made the women in his life his confidantes and relied on them more than he should. When his first wife Ellen died, Wilson was devastated. "Oh my God," he whispered at her deathbed, "What am I to do?" Just a year later, he was secretly courting a 42-year-old widow, Edith Bolling Galt. They carried out a secret romance and, though they lived just blocks apart, Wilson sent his future wife frequent love letters, some 20 pages long.

Wilson was at his most visionary in his plans for a new world order after World War I. His call for a just and lasting peace, though largely ignored, was farsighted. And his concept of a League of Nations was decades before its time. It was while vigorously campaigning for the doomed organization that Wilson suffered a paralyzing stroke. The President's inner circle wouldn't acknowledge Wilson's grave disability, allowing his wife Edith to effectively take over as chief executive.

In his final years, Wilson refused to admit he was a spent force. He thought to run for a third term, but his doctor advised that he was "permanently incapacitated and gradually weakening mentally." In spite of his failings and his reluctance to leave the political spotlight, Wilson left behind a profound legacy. "For better or worse," historian John Milton Cooper argues, "Wilson really set the course of American domestic and foreign policy for the rest of the century."

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