Wilson's biography is included in a boxed set now available from PBS Home Video that includes Theodore Roosevelt, FDR, Truman, Nixon, Carter, and one or two others. I've watched only the programs dealing with Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan so far, so I have a limited basis for comparison.
Based on that limited sample, Part One of "Woodrow Wilson" isn't quite up to snuff. That doesn't mean it's poorly done or not worth watching, only that T. R. and Reagan were both more informative and less, well, boring.
Wilson was born into a moderately wealthy, devoutly Presbyterian Southern family in the ruins of post-Civil-War Virginia. He overcame a childhood case of dyslexia sufficiently to gain entrance to Princeton University in New Jersey, which, at the time, was chiefly a factory turning out rich, white elitists who had little particular interest in being educated and whose heads were like eggs without yolks. I can get away with this kind of Olympian generalization because I'm from New Jersey, I managed to attend a few classes at Princeton and briefly worked there, and because the narration tells us it was so.
Wilson went on to a PhD from Johns Hopkins and became President of Princeton. He was an ambitious and prolific scholar and author. As a Presbyterian and a Calvinist, he cleaned up some of the laziness and introduced a tougher curriculum, helping to turn the place from a boys' tennis club into a prestigious university.
He was elected president on the Democratic ticket in 1916 despite his appearance and manners, which he himself described respectively as that of "a drug store clerk" and "cool." He almost certainly would have lost if Howard Taft had quit the race and let the blustering Theodore Roosevelt run as the Republican candidate. Both Wilson and Roosevelt were reformers, at a time when the country was badly in need of one, but Roosevelt wanted to regulate big business, while Wilson wanted to take the trusts apart and stimulate competition from small businesses.
He was a pretty compassionate guy, even idealistic. He knew nothing of foreign affairs and had to learn by the seat of his pants. Partly because of the absolute moral certainty derived from his Calvinism, his actions were blunt and forthright. Did Pancho Villa raid a small town in New Mexico? In return Wilson invaded Mexico to democratize it and got all wrapped up in its tar-baby internal politics.
Absolute moral certitude, from whatever source, can be dangerous, as all adults should know. For Wilson, it meant bringing about such reforms as the eight-hour work day and the abolition of child labor. But Wilson was also a Southerner and took some of its racial axioms for granted. African-Americans weren't seen as evolved quite as much as Caucasians. In fact, anthropologists of the day were busily trying to build evolutionary staircases for each of the many "races" they perceived. (England always came out on top.) So blacks got rather short shrift. Interracial marriage became illegal and mandatory segregation became the law, even in federal agencies.
But we need to put Wilson's politics and his social values aside because, whether or not we approve of them, they were part of the man himself and the goal of this series is to present us with a reasonably objective portrait.
He was cool and academic on the surface, passionate and loving underneath, or so the narration by Linda Hunt tells us several times. The "loving" part goes on at too great a length, if you ask me. Compared to the other episodes I've seen, we get more than we need to know about the inner life not only of Wilson but of his first wife, Ellen. It's a little like a program on the Biography Channel. "This threw the Wilson household into a panic." At any moment I expected the narrator to tell us, "Little did they know that tragedy lay just around the corner." Unlike the other episodes, this one uses reenactors. That is, actors and actresses play the parts of the principal characters. Emotions are important data but I kind of missed the brisk presentation of the other episodes. I moaned, along with Ellen, when she found out about Woodrow's ephemeral affair with some floozy named Peck in Bermuda.
Okay. So maybe he was diddling somebody for a week or two. I'd like to have known more about what convinced him that he'd make a good president.
Maybe Part Two analyzes this remarkable guy in a bit more depth.
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