- - Tuesday, February 24, 2015


By Charles E. Neu

Oxford University Press, $34.95, 720 pages

When it comes to presidents, the brightest are not necessarily the best. There are at least three other qualities that matter as much or more: temperament, judgment and character. The presidential greatness of men like Washington, Lincoln, FDR and Ronald Reagan was due at least as much to these qualities as it was to raw intellect.

And then there is Woodrow Wilson, a brilliant scholar with high ideals, but temperamentally — and judgmentally — incapable of sustained, successful leadership at the presidential level. Wilson was a prime example of a type all too familiar in public life, the self-proclaimed “progressive” who loves humanity in the abstract but doesn’t really like people that much. His conceit, his conviction that he was always the smartest guy in the room and that his Presbyterian God had chosen him to be the savior of mankind, rendered him unable to cope with the criticism and opposition that are an everyday part of the presidency.

They would probably have prevented him from being elected in the first place, but in 1912 the dominant Republican Party split down the middle, conservatives nominating William Howard Taft for a second term while Teddy Roosevelt mounted his Bull Moose third party insurgency. Wilson won an electoral landslide while receiving only 41.8 percent of the popular vote. One of the reasons such a politically inept candidate — after failing as a lawyer, he had spent most of his adult life as an academic and was only halfway through his maiden term as a machine-picked governor of New Jersey — ended up in the White House was the often unseen hand of a dapper Texas oligarch.

His name was Edward House, but the world knew him, even though he had never heard a shot fired in anger, as “Colonel” House thanks to an honorary commission bestowed on him by a governor of Texas. Born rich, the Colonel took up politics the way some people take up golf, becoming a power broker in Austin. He soon expanded his horizons, heading east to become a major behind-the-scenes player in national Democratic politics. Reform-minded but first and foremost a man who enjoyed the Realpolitik pulling of strings, House recognized the unique opportunity 1912 offered his party and settled on the Dark Horse Wilson as his candidate. House recognized Wilson’s good qualities — high ideals, sense of mission, oratorical eloquence and commitment to reform — while, perhaps unwittingly, feeding his negative side by abject flattery and a tendency to undercut anyone House saw as a rival for Wilson’s confidence. The Colonel was soon being sent on foreign missions as a personal presidential emissary, much to the chagrin of successive secretaries of state whom he regularly bad-mouthed to his boss.

As America drifted into World War I, House’s role became even more important and — like Wilson — he showed himself less and less up to the job. Britain and France desperately wanted America to enter the war, but had no intention of applying Wilsonian standards of democracy and self-determination where their own territorial interests were at stake. And they were determined to extract the last ounce of flesh from the vanquished Central Powers. At the Versailles peace negotiations, they humored Wilson and, when he returned to the United States, leaving House in charge of negotiations, they played on the latter’s vanity just as he had played on Wilson’s, convincing him that he was leading the Allies to a consensus when he was actually undercutting much of the president’s agenda. Once Wilson realized this — and also noticed the positive press coverage House was receiving as the alleged brains of the operation — he soured on his now not-so-silent partner.

A subsequent massive stroke rendered Wilson incapable of governing, leaving him a virtual prisoner in his own White House; his rather grim second wife, Edith, isolated him from the outside world and ran the executive branch with the connivance of two close personal aides, Joseph Tumulty and presidential physician Cary Grayson. House repeatedly tried to mend fences with Wilson but never saw him again; it is not even certain that Mrs. Wilson showed her husband his letters. The Colonel subsequently tried his best to work out a compromise that would commit the United States to the League of Nations. A prominent American journalist, Stephen Bonsal (who — small world — was a pallbearer for this reviewer’s paternal grandfather), acted as middle man between House and Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, the Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Wilson, isolated, ill-informed and by now well into his King Lear mode, rejected all offers of compromise, thereby rendering the League of Nations stillborn.

Biographer Charles E. Neu is to be congratulated for mastering the diplomatic complexities of the Wilsonian era while painting lively, insightful portraits of Woodrow Wilson as King Lear and Colonel House as the “little man behind the curtain.”

Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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