Most successful politician of generation — Regarded himself as the chosen leader of the party — Jackson Day speech — Appeal for Democratic Congress — Had no machine and used no patronage — Humor in speeches
"My ambition is to add something to the statesmanship of the country, if that something be only thought and not the old achievement of which I used to dream when I hoped that I might enter practical politics." — Wilson
"Woodrow Wilson is the most successful politician of his generation," was the dictum of a trained journalist of Washington who had known all the political leaders from the seventies. If this journalist is correct, to what is to be attributed his success in politics? He never attended a party convention, and never served on a political committee. His part began and ended with what the average voter would call "high-brow" discussion of government as a science, exposure of governmental errors, fight on unworthy political machines, and life-long zeal for bettering government processes and administration. These are not usually the steps that lead to undisputed leadership of a great political party, the governorship and the Presidency, and a career of triumphs which terminated only when he was stricken with illness.
What is the explanation? It was not due to the creation of a machine, to the activity of political friends, to wide acquaintance, to having anything to give in p210 the way of patronage. Even when Governor and President, he would not employ patronage to advance measures he had deeply at heart.
During his campaign for Governor of New Jersey, a brilliant succession of victories on the platform, Judge Hudspeth said to him: "Dr. Wilson, you need not be surprised that some time during your trip about the state, some exuberant voter will slap you on the back and say, 'Come, Woody, old man, let's have a drink.' " He laughed heartily. "The intimate introduction is all right, but I could draw the line on liquoring up," Wilson said. "You know, I have the reputation of making or having few intimate friends. I suppose it is because of the atmosphere I have passed the greater part of my life in. It is unfortunate for man to have such a reputation, particularly in politics." Hudspeth subsequently said: "That was not true, so far as there was an implication that he held himself aloof from his fellow-man or was unapproachable. He loved companionship and eagerly coveted the friendship of men whom he admired and had confidence in."
The advertisement of a whiskey, "Wilson — That's All," in days before prohibition sent it into what Mr. Cleveland called "innocuous desuetude," was greatly overworked by presiding officers when Wilson was a candidate for Governor of New Jersey. It became a habit, with a wink and a shrug of the shoulder, for the introducer to say, waving toward the nominee, "Wilson — That's All." On the eve of the election Mr. Wilson was scheduled to address a meeting in Hudson County. The chairman was a German-American citizen. As he walked through the wings to the stage with the President he said to him:
p211 "You know, Mr. Veelson, that vee never say anything in Hudson County now but 'Veelson, that's all.' "
"My!" answered Mr. Wilson, "that has a dissipated sound."
"Only a person who was actually but a little lower than the angels," said a bystander, "could reply so composedly after hearing that ancient wheeze so often."
In an address in Washington, upon the unveiling of the equestrian statue of Phil Sheridan, of New Jersey, Wilson said: "His soldiers always showed fondness by referring to him as 'Phil.' I have always wished I had a name people might shorten without making me 'wood.' "
On one occasion, claiming great things for the Democratic party, Mr. Wilson told a story showing his sense of humor. It was of the condition of a negro who fell sound asleep on a train, his head back, his tongue out. A man near by shook some powdered quinine on his tongue. The negro presently closed his mouth, woke up with a start and called of that conductor in great excitement: "Is dere a doctor on dis train, boss? I done busted my gall."
"I haven't quite busted my gall," remarked Mr. Wilson, "but I haven't the audacity to go too far in claiming any particular virtue for any party."
Upon becoming Governor of New Jersey, Mr. Wilson stated he had been chosen "the leader of the Democratic party in this State." When he became President he made the same statement as to the leadership of the national party. He assumed that leadership as Governor, but found it was questioned seriously when he got to Washington. This was no assertion of personal desire to lead. It was born of a conviction that a party must p212 have a leader. If not the man who is chosen executive, where would he be found? That principle he had expounded long years before the politicians had even heard of the schoolmaster. "The President," he had said, "may be both the leader of his party and the leader of the nation, or he may be one or the other. If he lead the nation, his party can hardly resist him." That was the opinion of Wilson, the student of government. What of it when he became President? In his message to Congress, June 23, 1913, shortly after his inauguration, he asserted for himself what he had long before declared was the function of a President in a government by parties. "I come to you," he said, "as the head of the Government and the responsible head of the party in power."
Many who approved of his exercise of power as national leader in upholding principles, balked when he went so far as to call upon the people of States to defeat Senators who had not supported the policies he had championed. There was resentment in many quarters, when he told the people of Mississippi, for example, as a conspicuous instance, that if they re-elected Senator Vardaman, "I should be obliged to accept their action as a condemnation of my administration." The mass of the people of all parties, seeing that Vardaman had opposed the war and been antagonistic to Wilson's plans, were glad to see the President throw his mighty influence in the scale and retire the Mississippian, even if the exercise of that power in ordinary cases would have been criticized.
In the late spring of 1911, Governor Wilson's friends persuaded him that he ought to accept the many invitations to speak in the West and to make "a swing p213 around the circle" preliminary to his candidacy for the Presidency. He was not pleased with the suggestion. He did not like the idea of being a candidate. He would not solicit support for the great office. Wisconsin Progressives and Texas Democrats and Oregon Forward-Looking men deluged him with invitations. Princeton alumni all over the country added pressure. He accepted an invitation to speak in Pennsylvania, then to Wisconsin and could not resist the appeals to the Pacific slope, traveling some 8,000 miles before he got back to New Jersey. The welcome was cheering. The people wanted to hear what "the scholar in politics" would say. They had followed his course in New Jersey and it gave them hope that like reforms and revolutions might be wrought elsewhere. Neither on that trip nor ever after did he "speak down" to the people. He believed too much in them to patronize them and would have lost his respect for himself if he had failed to give the best that was in him to any audience. The high plane upon which he had pitched his campaign for Governor of New Jersey was not changed. His natural fund of humor and his candor and plainness of speech attracted. Moreover, he had the refreshing quality of willingness to admit that he could learn. When he reached Oregon, he was frankly interested in the system of initiative and referendum and recall in operation in that commonwealth. He said afterwards that his visit to Oregon had been a liberal education to him. "For fifteen years I taught that the initiative and referendum would not work. But they do work," he said.
In New Jersey he had often said: "Back of all reform lies the means of getting it." He was willing to try new with armies, all the more ready because in the p214 Eastern states, as he had put it, "we have been living under the delusion that it is a representative government. That is the theory. But fact is that we are not living under a representative government; we are living under a government of party bosses who in secret conferences and for their private ends determine what we shall and shall not have. The first immediate thing that we have got to do is to restore representative government.' He declared that the people are waiting "to have their politics utterly simplified. They are realizing that our politics are full of secret conferences, that there are private arrangements, and they do not understand it." Then he asked: "Who are the captains? Where are the orders?"
Wilson was a stout partisan when the battle-lines were drawn. Until the issue was made up and the call to battle sounded, there was nothing in him of the hard-and‑fast partisan for a cause. He kept his mind "in debate" and was singularly open to reason from any source. Tolerant of difference of opinion, he accorded to men of opposite faith the same sincerity he claimed for himself. He believed men of all parties were equally patriotic and honorable. Mr. Wilson, after his New Jersey campaign, was recognized as an effective political speaker. The two occasions when he revealed himself the party leader most tellingly and in a way to "draw blood," so to speak, were his Jackson Day speech at Indianapolis, January 8, 1915, and his appeal to the voters on October 24, 1918, for a Democratic Congress.
In the first he was in his happiest mood. Like a boy let loose from school, he was speaking in the spirit of the day to members of his own party in a state where p215 politics is a 365‑days-a‑year profession. He had gone there to cheer the faithful. He spoke without notes and with the utmost freedom, often in a light vein. In a sense it is the best disclosure made of himself as a party leader and speaker, and of his readiness to "poke fun" at the opposition party. He had on his fighting clothes. He began by speaking of the "compelling influences" of Jackson Day. Jackson was a "forthright man," who believed in "fighting in earnest," and he said, "that is the only sort of man worth thinking about." Then he declared: "You will notice that whenever the United States forgets its ardor for mankind, it is necessary that a Democrat be elected President."
"The trouble with the Republican party is that it has not had a new idea for thirty years," he asserted. Then he paused while the Jacksonians applauded, and commented: "I am not speaking as a politician; I am speaking as an historian. I have looked for new ideas in records and I have not found any proceeding from Republican ranks." That declaration raised a controversy which lasted a year. The Republican speakers and editors disputed the statement. The Democrats replied with a challenge to name the "new ideas." But Wilson did not stop there in his indictment. "The Republican party," he went on, "is still a covert and refuge for those who are afraid, for those who want to consult their grandfathers about everything. They are afraid the youngsters may have something up their sleeves."
He told his hearers "the country is guided and its policy is determined by the independent voter." As to his own position he said: "I am not an independent voter, but I am an independent person. I want to say p216 this distinctly: I do not love any party longer than it continues to serve the immediate and pressing needs of America. I have been bred in the Democratic party; I love the Democratic party; but I love America a great deal more than I love the Democratic party, and when the Democratic party thinks that it is an end in itself, then I rise up and dissent." Which party should the independent voter use? He said only one-third of the Republican party is progressive and two-thirds of the Democratic party is progressive. "Therefore the independent voter finds a great deal more company in the Democratic party than in the Republican ranks." He suggested that he would like to see every independent voter become a Democrat. "It is a little cold and lonely out where he is. . . . I want him to come in where it is warm." He called attention to the fact that it had been reported that Republican senators "mean to talk enough" to prevent the passage of the shipping bill. He challenged their right to "stand in the way of the release of American products to the rest of the world!" And he declared with vigor: "The reason I say the Republicans have not had a new idea in thirty years is that they have not known how to do anything except sit on the lid."
Thereafter he entered upon a serious and illuminating discussion of the institution of the Mexican problem and other lesser issues, with a strong plea to help Mexico and not covet her resources.
The other significant utterance in a political campaign was Wilson's appeal to the country in 1918 to elect a Democratic Congress. It was nothing exceptional for Presidents to appeal for support for the party in power in the crucial days of war. Lincoln had urged p217 the people in 1864 not to "swap horses in midstream." Lincoln wrote to General Sherman asking him to arrange for the soldiers in Indiana to vote. In 1898 McKinley pleaded for victory for an administration in "critical times." Roosevelt said, "A refusal to sustain the President this year, will in their eyes (Europeans) be read as a refusal to sustain the efforts of the peace commission." Benjamin Harrison to the same effect had made a like plea, saying, "If the Democrats score a telling victory, Spain will see in it a gleam of hope."
The same reasoning, if sound, called for the election of a Democratic Congress in November, 1918. Mr. Wilson, therefore, in that spirit made an appeal to the voters "in the most critical period our country has ever faced or is likely to face in our time," to elect "a Democratic majority in the United States Senate and House." He prefaced this by saying, "If you have offered me your leadership and wish me to continue to be your unembarrassed spokesman in affairs at home or abroad." He said he had no thought of "suggesting that any party is paramount in matters of patriotism," and he "felt too keenly the sacrifices which have been made in this war by all our citizens, irrespective of party affiliations," to "harbor such an idea." The "difficulties and delicacies of our present task" called for "undivided support under a unified leadership." He went on to say that the Republicans in Congress had "unquestionably been pro-war, but they have been anti-Administration." He added, "Unity of command is as necessary now in civil action as it is upon the field of battle."
The publication of that letter was the signal for the pouring out of the vitals of wrath upon the head of Mr. Wilson. Many were made to believe he had reflected p218 upon the patriotism of the Republicans, and their resentment knew no bounds. Democrats believed — or many did — that this resentment cost them the control of Congress. Looking back in the light of history, whatever may be said of the wisdom of Lincoln, McKinley, and Wilson, appealing for a party victory in crucial days of war, the letter of Mr. Wilson contains only one direct appeal: the need of unity of command. It had only one criticism of Republicans in Congress: that they had "sought to take the choice of policy of conduct of the war out of the hands" of the President and "put it under the control of instrumentalities of their own choosing." That was as true as that Republicans had been patriotic in war matters. Let it be conceded Republicans were wholly sincere in seeking to take control from Wilson, the fact still remains, that unity of command was essential in "crucial days." Wilson was in office for two years more. Nothing could change that fact. If unity was desirable, he ought to have a Congress controlled by men of his party. He asked for that. It was denied him, the Republican leaders declaring that they would co‑operate with Wilson in carrying on the war and in reconstruction without party bias. They carried Congress. What happened? From the day they organized Congress, there was a stalemate for two years. In "crucial" years, when there was need for united action after war, nothing was done. Appraising what followed, the verdict of history will be that the prompt adjustment needed after war was prevented by divided counsel. Lincoln was right. McKinley was right. Wilson was right. In days of war and reconstruction it is wisest, no matter whether the President is a Democrat or a Republican, for the p219 Congress to be controlled by legislators of the same party.
The criticism of Mr. Wilson that had weight was that in the emergency he should have urged the voters to defeat all candidates, Democrats and Republicans, who were not willing to put country above party. If he had done that, say those critics, the result would have been different. Who can say? A short time after the election, speaking to members of the Democratic National Committee, Mr. Wilson said he was not discouraged by the result of the election, and added: "Some of them (defeated Congressmen) got exactly what was coming to them and I haven't any bowels of compassion for them. They did not support the things they pretended to support. And the country knew they didn't."
Party man, yes, but when party associate did not put country above party, he had no comradeship with Woodrow Wilson.
Patriotism above Party!
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