- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 12, 2000

In the broad daylight of Federal Triangle is a Washington anomaly: a little-known monument to a well-known president.

Step into the open plaza of the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center and look through seven high windows along a curving facade. A tiny sign outside anchors it: "The Woodrow Wilson Memorial."

The bronze-and-stone structure is the nation's monument to the 28th president. Two years have passed since it opened, and it has yet to be dedicated officially by the president or anyone else for that matter.

"Obviously, it's not the Washington Monument or Jefferson Memorial or the Lincoln Memorial, each of which commands its very own separate structure," says Dean W. Anderson, who directs planning at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, "but it nonetheless, in the scale of its immediate surroundings, announces that here is something special.

"It deserves to be seen by more and more people."

Who cares about Woodrow Wilson? Guru Alan Greenspan might be jobless without the 28th president: Wilson created the Federal Reserve Board. Elizabeth Dole wouldn't have been able to vote let alone run for president without the women's suffrage amendment, adopted during Wilson's term (1913-1921). And, of course, he presided over World War I and fashioned the League of Nations, precursor to today's United Nations.

Maybe Washington suffers from memorial overdose. The 20th century saw the District explode in marble devoted to U.S. presidents. At the turn of the 19th century, only Washington's monument stood on the Mall. Then came the big three to Lincoln, Jefferson and Franklin Roosevelt; monuments to Theodore Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson were placed in Virginia. (True, the Woodrow Wilson Bridge is named for the president.)

The Wilson memorial, adjacent to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, may be too functional for its own good. It's a convenient albeit two-story-high corridor between parts of the Wilson Center inside the Reagan Building. Indeed, the center itself snuck in without a peep, moving in after the Reagan Building's grand opening in May 1998.

"Trying to get the president back to formally inaugurate a space that came on line about four months later was a non-starter," Mr. Anderson says. "So we've had what's referred to, at least in the museum, as a soft opening."

Wilson's smooth, easy voice made him a popular orator, so four of the memorial's panels quote from his 1912 campaign, first inaugural, war address and final speech before his 1919 stroke, which he suffered while seeking public support for the League of Nations.

A square, bronze bas-relief of Wilson's face by sculptor Leonard Baskin dominates the wall at center. A small auditorium around the corner shows a Wilson video, which even includes critics such as George Will.

"It is a wonderful confluence of people who had aesthetic vision and some historical sense for the grand spaces in Washington," Mr. Anderson says.

Mr. Anderson says the Reagan Building's principal architect, Jim Freed of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, picked the location "in which the volumetrics, sight lines, proportions and visibility through glass windows outside was scaled in a way that was commensurate with a presidential memorial."

Mr. Baskin, sculptor of three pieces for the FDR memorial, has shaped an inexact but intense likeness of Wilson: A pepper-shaped head with faded ears and hair. The narrow, pointed nose is its most prominent feature, sticking out about a foot.

"If a person was looking at the memorial from the point of view of photo-realism or verisimilitude, there might be some comment, 'Well, the pince-nez didn't fit exactly that way on the bridge of his nose,' " Mr. Anderson says. "Most people find that the likeness itself is moving."

It mixes etched lines, bulges and indentations. The chin slightly swells beneath a protruding upper lip. The hollow eyeballs suggest a dazed sadness.

"The piece of sculpture is interesting," says Frank Aucella of the Woodrow Wilson House museum. "Perhaps from the outside it looks a little better than right underneath. It's a neat kind of thing."

The 20-minute video abbreviates Wilson's life. It's not all laudatory, pointing out his inattention to racial issues and the carving up of Europe with the Treaty of Versailles.

"That was a little bit controversial as well," Mr. Anderson says. "There were some folks who kibitzed around the edges of all of that, who were very negative about a memorial saying anything unflattering, but the Wilson Center isn't here to do puff pieces on people."

Indeed, though Wilson usually is ranked among the top 10 presidents by historians, John Milton Cooper, author of "The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt," says he is fascinated by the controversy surrounding the former New Jersey governor, who skyrocketed to the Oval Office just three years after leaving the presidency of Princeton University.

"The term 'Wilsonian' remains an epithet," Mr. Cooper says. "Actually, I think it's a tribute to the power and ideas of his presidency."

The National Journal recently called him "an idealist who wound up giving idealism a bad name." Pat Buchanan chides Wilson for "big government, globalism and world government." Historian Richard Brookhiser writes that perhaps scholars such as Wilson were too smart for their own good. Mr. Cooper disagrees.

"Brains didn't get in his way; in fact, they really were what enabled him to be as great a president as he was," says Mr. Cooper, whose book "Breaking the Heart of the World: Woodrow Wilson and the Fight Over the League of Nations," comes out next year.

"He devoted his career as a political scientist to studying how to conduct democratic leadership within our system. He took the ideas and put them into practice," Mr. Cooper says.

The Wilson Center has been criticized for lack of "relevance." Its new director, Lee Hamilton, has promised a shift in emphasis. Mr. Anderson says the memorial as well as its Web site and radio program will make its presence felt more in public as well.

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