The award-winning author discusses his choice of President Woodrow Wilson as a biography subject.
Biographer A. Scott Berg
Tavis: This year is the 100th anniversary of the first inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson, a self-proclaimed progressive who fervently wanted to export democracy around the globe. Wilson nevertheless suppressed free speech here at home. And as a southerner of a certain generation, he pursued segregation through infamous Jim Crow laws.
Now Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, A. Scott Berg, has taken on the task of unraveling this complicated and often contradictory man in an epic new biography titled “Wilson.” Mr. Berg, good to have you on this program.
A. Scott Berg: Thank you. It’s nice to be with you.
Tavis: Glad to have you here. Let me just go right in. Wilson is a racist. Wilson is a sexist. Tell me why he deserves this.
Berg: Well, I don’t think he’s a sexist.
Berg: I think he is a racist and I do think, at the end of the day, at the end of the 20th century, he still stands as the most influential figure of that century.
Tavis: Tell me more.
Berg: I think he brought about more change than any other person, most of it for the good. If you were an African American, it wasn’t. But for the rest of the world, it was pretty good.
Tavis: We’ll go inside this in a second here. Tell me why you acknowledge or why you accept the racist moniker, but push back on the sexist moniker.
Berg: Well, I push back on the sexist because he really did fight for women getting the vote. He wasn’t for a constitutional amendment at first. He thought it should be done state by state.
But as we know, when people talk about states’ rights, that’s often code. Certainly in the civil rights movement, we know what it means. And for women, that was the case too.
But once we got into World War I, he became the most outspoken proponent for women having the right to vote and a 19th amendment, and he pushed it over the line very quickly.
Tavis: Tell me the worst of his racism.
Berg: Well, for me, the worst of his racism is not what he did, but it’s what he didn’t do. And what he didn’t do, I think there was a golden moment in this country in 1919 when all the soldiers were coming back from World War I and tens of thousands of African Americans fought in that war.
And they came back thinking, you know, I’ve shed blood, I’m a brother. I’ve lost brothers in this war. We’re all 100% Americans and this is our time to be assimilated into American society.
And it would have been a good teachable moment even for a southerner like Woodrow Wilson to step up and tell his brother southerners this is now the time we have to start embracing the African American in this country, and he said nothing.
And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the summer of 1919 was the red summer, the bloodiest summer in civil rights history. You know, it all broke out that summer, the riots across the country, and I think it was in large reaction because they were not embraced.
Tavis: We are all the sum total of our life’s experiences. What is it about the back story of Woodrow Wilson that made him that way and allowed him then to take these kinds of positions contrary to the best interest of Black people?
Berg: Yeah. Although I should add here, he thought he was doing something for the African American. He really did. This is not a guy who hated African Americans. He always had the door open, in fact.
I mean, all the great Black leaders came to see Woodrow Wilson and some of them – I think the great of them – James Weldon Johnson, who’s just an incredible writer, came and saw Wilson and said, “You know, I’ve really got to get over my prejudices of Wilson because he’s really not as bad as I thought he was.”
Tavis: But if he’s advancing Jim Crow, then what in his mind – this goes back to my question about his back story – how was he processing his helping the Negro?
Berg: Yes. His processing was he grew up in the south. He was born in Virginia, was raised during the Civil War and Reconstruction. He was raised in segregated society. He saw the first bits of integration when he became president and there was integration just starting in the postal service, in the Treasury Department, and there was friction there, needless to say.
Wilson’s feeling was, you know what, I don’t think this country is ready. I don’t think the south is ready. I think it’ll be safer, it’ll be better for everybody, if we have separate but equal, which was the law of the land in those days. 1896, there was a famous case that came down with that ruling.
So I think he thought a couple of things. He would make life safer, more peaceful, for whites and for Blacks if they didn’t have to rub shoulders. Wilson was getting attacked by both sides.
I mean, whites were saying to him, “Why are you still appointing judges who are Black? Why are you giving middle management positions to Blacks? Don’t you realize that’ll mean someday a white woman will be working under a Black man? That’s just unacceptable.”
So that’s the world Wilson grew up in and knew. So I think deep down he felt the southerners especially were not ready to accept it. And I think he also, to be really political about it, he had a very progressive agenda he wanted to pass for the rest of the country.
And I think he knew, if he began integrating, he’d never get anything past all the southerners in the Senate and the Congress, which were a good third of it. So he needed their backing.
Tavis: I just interviewed a new author on my public radio program the other day who’s written a book about racism in the Ivy League back in the day. Wilson obviously was president of Princeton, which is why I raise this.
There is some damning stuff in this text about letters he wrote and comments that he made to persons who wanted to be students and others while he was president of Princeton.
Berg: Yeah. And I think what he was basically saying is, “You’re not gonna be happy here.” So let’s just make it easier for everybody, including me, the president of the college. There’s no way you are gonna get through a day unmolested. Why don’t you go to a place where you’ll be more comfortable?
This, you know, to tell you, I mean, it sounds awful 100 years later, and it is. But in Wilson’s day, that was considered really smart. He was a good peacemaker. He was really a centrist in his day.
Tavis: How do you juxtapose – let me premise this by saying that one of my problems in the era that we live now is that in Washington and beyond, there is – how might I put this – we are too easily impressed in this day and age with braininess and oftentimes the head isn’t connected to the heart.
So a person might possess a great deal of intellect, but that intellect isn’t usable because it’s not connected to a heart that revels in the humanity of other people. As a preface, having said that, how is it that Wilson could be as bright as he was?
This guy is the president of Princeton. Politically, you’ve explained his point of view and maybe that trumped all else. But I’m trying to get the disconnect between his head and his heart, given how bright he was.
Berg: Well, I don’t know that it always did connect. I believe he believed or he convinced himself that he was doing the best thing. You know, I think above all, I think presidents want as little friction and noise as possible in the world and this was a way to keep the noise down.
And that’s why I pointed to that summer of 1919 or just before when all the Black soldiers were coming home. See, that could have been a moment where I think he could have stopped what really became riots for months. I mean, every city broke out. And had he stepped up, it would have made a difference, I think.
And I think, had he really listened to what I think his heart would have said, but he just kept saying over and over again, I know the south. They just won’t accept it. And the proof is, you know, it took another 50 years and, when it happened in the 50s and 60s, of course, we still had all the riots that they talked about.
I think maybe we inevitably had to go through that process, whether it was going to be in 1913 or 19 – you know, the 50s and 60s.
Tavis: Dr. King once famously said that there is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. So that the some of the man, the s-o-m-e, is not the sum of the man, the s-u-m. Thankfully for Wilson, the some is not the sum.
So we’ve talked about the darker, the night side, of Woodrow Wilson. What is, to your mind, the enduring legacy of Woodrow Wilson?
Berg: Yeah. And I would just say about his heart too, though, he wasn’t a hater. I mean, he really wasn’t. I think he did think he was doing the best thing. But, again, I think, you know, certainly 100 years later, it looks terribly, terribly wrong.
The good things he did, and it’s ironic that he was so regressive when it came to race because he was so progressive in almost everything else, and that includes basically the modern income tax which he thought was more fair for middle and lower class people, the federal reserve system which he thought took away a lot of the power from five or six bankers. He put the first Jew on the Supreme Court.
So he began shattering, you see, glass ceilings. He was opening a few doors for some Americans who were on the fringe. And internationally, he was a real idealist and certainly bringing us to war was so that he could bring about a greater peace, he thought, through a League of Nations.
And he was really the first one to say there should be this international parliament, a United Nations we now have, because the Senate didn’t buy his League of Nations. But it was a place where every country could sit and discuss problems before they grew into wars.
Tavis: How important was his League of Nations as a precursor, as a predecessor to the United Nations?
Berg: Well, I think it’s everything. And I think, after World War II, people said, oh, my God, if we had only listened to Woodrow Wilson, if we had that League up and running in 1920 when Woodrow Wilson wanted it, we wouldn’t have gone to World War II.
So they said let’s try something else now. Let’s do a version of that. Let’s call it the United Nations this time.
Tavis: I wonder, Scott, if you can compare and contrast for me Wilson’s internationalism with the internationalism of today.
Let me ask it another way. Wilson clearly is interested in spreading democracy and certainly for the balance of my lifetime, every president that takes the oath of office wants to spread democracy around the world.
Sometimes that can be arrogant, I think, and hubristic on our part in the way we go about attempting to do that, thinking we’re doing the world a favor by spreading democracy.
But I wonder if you, again, can compare and contrast what we know today as efforts contemporarily to spread democracy with what Wilson was trying to do then?
Berg: Well, the whole concept then and now is Wilsonian. I mean, here we are 100 years later. Wilson – and you were talking about head and heart – here Wilson really connected those dots because Wilson was really the first president to introduce that moral component.
He was the most religious president we ever had, son and grandson of Presbyterian ministers. So he thought there should be morality to American foreign policy and that’s why he thought we can’t just sit and watch these tyrannical nations walk over smaller countries. We have to step up and do something. So sometimes that’s very good.
I mean, when President Obama was talking about should we do something about Syria, that was Wilsonian. When he was saying can we watch a dictator just gas his own people, kill children, don’t we have an obligation as human beings with power to do something? Don’t we have to do something?
The flip side is, it in some ways empowers every president to go out there and say, okay, we’re the cops of the world. We’re gonna fix whatever we want to fix. So it’s a delicate balance.
Tavis: Give me more insight on Wilson’s views about whether or not, to your point now, the U.S. of A. is the world’s policeman because that debate continues to rage today about the role that we should and should not play in the world regarding these kinds of issues.
Berg: Yeah. I don’t think, at the end of the day, he thought we should be the policeman. He thought, first of all, there should be collective security, that it shouldn’t just be the United States walking in and do something. He also felt intervention was a last resort.
Bringing us into World War I, he took years to get us into the war and it was only finally when he was just desperate because the Germans were torpedoing neutral ships and killing Americans who were going down on them and they weren’t responding to all his diplomatic efforts.
So, you know, what’s been twisted is that we should just march in whenever we feel like doing something. That’s not Wilsonian.
But Wilsonian is having a dialog with the rest of the world and say, if there’s nothing else, then, yes, we, the strongest nation in the world, must step up and come in with some other nations and do something about it.
Tavis: I think you acknowledge, if not directly tacitly, earlier in this conversation, Scott, that there is a view that tends to be held when one thinks of Woodrow Wilson.
What everyone thinks of that view – I started talking about his racism and other issues – what up until this point – that is to say, up until this book – what do you think has most driven the way we read the narrative about Wilson contemporarily?
Berg: Well, I think in contemporary society, I mean, I think right now, I think the reason he has fallen a few pegs on the great history lists of where he belongs is the racial issue. And I think also we’re now coming to talk about also how suppressive he was during World War I.
He really invoked a lot of the old alien and sedition laws once we were at war. He didn’t want to hear any talk that was against what the government was doing and people went to jail. I mean, these are the two real big strikes against Woodrow Wilson.
Tavis: I was about to ask you, what would be politically the low point of his presidency?
Berg: Well, I think the low point actually – and it was at a moment that should have been the high point – he went out fighting for a cause in this country which was to get the nation behind his League of Nations and he had a collapse and a stroke in the middle of this tour he did of the country.
And he was rushed back to the White House where, for a year and a half, nobody knew that the President of the United States had suffered a stroke.
His wife was virtually running the country without telling anybody what had happened. It was amazing that you could get away with it for a year and a half. So during that time, there were the notorious Palmer raids where his Attorney-General went in and really was just trying to get rid of alien and seditious thought.
And that’s when he was rounding up with a young guy named J. Edgar Hoover who was just rounding up people, sending them to jail, deporting them. This was the low point certainly of his administration. He was in bed and didn’t even know about it, so that was happening then. But it was the low point of his administration.
For me, again personally, I think the low point of him as a presidential figure was not stepping up in that one moment when he could have done something for African Americans, I think.
Tavis: You referenced our current president, Barack Obama, earlier in this conversation. There are two or three presidents that come to mind that this president is most often compared to, oftentimes at the suggestion of his administration, certainly the campaign. They loved the JFK comparisons. They loved the Abraham Lincoln, Illinois comparisons.
Are there some parallels to be drawn? We can see the contrast, obviously, certainly on the issue of race. But are there some parallels to be drawn that you see between Barack Obama and Woodrow Wilson?
Berg: I think they are extremely similar. In fact, I don’t think there’s been another president as close to Woodrow Wilson as Barack Obama.
Berg: Quite ironically. They’re both constitutional scholars. They were both teachers. Both a little aloof. You know, they get criticized for that. They both love golf. But they seem to be detached men.
Wilson, in fact, had one big advantage over Obama, though. And I sometimes think our current president could take a few pages out of this playbook.
Wilson got in there and scrapped with the Congress. He would go down to Congress sometimes five days a week and just sit in an office that exists in the Congress. It’s called the President’s Room. No president has really used it since Woodrow Wilson.
And Wilson would go in there and just grab senators when they came off the floor and say, “Let’s start discussing these laws I want to see enacted.” And he would get stuff done. So he would have a dialog going all the time.
And sometimes I feel President Obama doesn’t have that sustained dialog. So as a result of that, he sort of has to lurch from crisis to crisis and each month it’s, okay, what is it this month that he’s gonna save the day at the last minute? And he often does and I applaud him for that. But I find he’s most successful when he keeps the talk going with people.
Tavis: Give me some sense of how Wilson was an orator, since you’re making these parallels between Wilson and Obama. Obama gets high marks for giving great speeches at least. How was Wilson when it came to relating to people?
Berg: Wilson was, I think, the greatest orator of his day. And it’s interesting because, you know, he was a college professor. He’s the only president we had with a PhD. He wrote a dozen books. Well, our current president has written some books too. Both highly eloquent men. Wilson never spoke down to the American people and he wrote every one of his speeches.
Tavis: He’s the last president to do that too, to actually write every speech.
Berg: That’s exactly right. Last one.
Tavis: The others edit, but he literally wrote word for word.
Berg: Literally. He would sit down – I was gonna say – he would sit down with a secretary. He would sit down himself. He took shorthand, so he would write it in shorthand or he’d sit at a typewriter because he was the best typist in the White House.
So he did it himself and he was an incredible speaker. So he had that. It was a real powerful tool for him. But, you see, by not speaking down, by using his professorial vocabulary, he lifted the nation.
Even people who weren’t educated felt better because they understood what Woodrow Wilson was saying and it was a great tool he did.
Tavis: It’s not as if – and you’ll take my point on this – it’s not as if presidential speech writers put words into the mouths of the presidents. Indeed they do because they write these speeches. But every president edits what he wants to say and they do the rewrites.
Clinton famously – and Obama, for that matter – you can see them onstage crossing stuff out. Clinton, all the time. This guy’s crossed stuff out as he’s walking to the podium. So he’s known for editing stuff all the time.
But I wonder if you might say a word more about how that uniquely situated Wilson? Because it’s hard for us to imagine – those of us who follow politics – that a president today would have the time or the interest to sit and to write everything he says.
Berg: Yeah. Well, I should add that he only wrote speeches when they were really important moments like we have to declare war. But the other speeches, I mean, campaign speeches, hundreds of campaign speeches, he did off the cuff.
Tavis: Just impromptu.
Berg: He would walk out there with a card. It would have five bullet points on it and he’d go for an hour without a grammatical error, without one paragraph that didn’t follow the next one. Thought perfectly. Bill Clinton has that gift too.
Tavis: He does.
Berg: I’ve seen him go an hour and a half just off the top of his head.
Tavis: We all saw it at the Democratic Convention [laugh].
Berg: Yeah, exactly. Well, there was an occasion that he could have used some editing [laugh].
Tavis: But it worked for voters, though.
Berg: Well, at the end of the day, it clicked, you know. Two terms. And Woodrow Wilson got his two terms and Barack Obama got his two terms.
Tavis: Yeah. How did Wilson manage with the challenges we talked about in this conversation? How did he manage two terms? How did he get that opportunity to do it twice?
Berg: Well, it was real nip and tuck. Well, I was gonna say, even the first time, he did luck out because he ran against sort of two Republicans. He was running against the incumbent, William Howard Taft, and Taft’s predecessor, Teddy Roosevelt, didn’t like what Taft had done for the Republican Party.
So Teddy Roosevelt started the Bull Moose Party, a progressive wing of the Republicans. So that helped Wilson kind of slide in the first time.
The second time, it was one of the great elections of all time. It took weeks before all the final results were in. They were waiting for a few thousand ballots from California which made the difference and Woodrow Wilson won.
And it was in the end actually a few thousand women’s votes because women had the vote in California, but not in many other states. That turned the tide for Wilson. So he squeaked by.
I think Wilson introduced so many progressive things a lot of people wanted to put the brakes on. And I think that’s often why presidents don’t get two terms. They do too much, not always too little. In the case of Wilson, I think it was too much. I think they wanted to stop him, but he did get in.
Tavis: There are a lot of people concerned and chagrined about the notion that we might not, for the foreseeable future at least, see the kind of “progressive” president that we’d like to see, that we think the country needs. How might Wilson fit into this era with his progressivism specifically?
Berg: I think he’d fit in because I think – I mean, I could…
Tavis: Could he sell it to the American people?
Berg: I think he could. First of all, he had eloquence. He also had integrity. He believed in what he was saying. You know, Wilson said, “We are not put into this world to sit still and know. We’re put in it to act.”
And he was a very activist president. I think, you know, every now and then, we get some of these people who come along and you just can’t stop these moving trains, and Wilson was one of them.
And I say at the end of now the century, you know, or now well into the new century, whether you like Wilson or not, whether you agree with him or not, you have to know about him because the world we live in is one he created.
Tavis: The new book from Pulitzer Prize-winning author, A. Scott Berg, is called “Wilson.” This is the 100th anniversary of the first inauguration of Woodrow Wilson. So timely that this text is out. Scott, congratulations. Good to have you on the program.
Berg: Thank you very much.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith.
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