March 23rd, 2012
Ben Domenech lays the wood in the Transom this morning:
Barack Obama is a Wilsonian. Not in the progressive policy sense, though that argument can certainly be advanced. I mean in method: he is a lecturer. He is best before a crowd, prepped with soaring rhetoric and planned oratory, adopting the role of the inspirational academic, the professor who made everyone love learning as a freshman but who, upon reconsideration, didn’t actually teach you that much. You see the continued faith in this method of politics as extended book tour illustrated in Obama’s response to the near-crisis price of gas: another speaking tour in front of varied photo ops to make the argument that yes, we are drilling, and no, if we drill more it won’t solve anything, and anyway it’s not my fault. http://vlt.tc/7an
It’s a reminder that this White House has more profound faith in a president’s personal ability to advance any cause than any since Wilson himself. The problem is that the history of this high opinion of onstage magnetism is very uneven, and it ultimately proved Wilson’s undoing. Consider September 1919, as described by David Pietrusza: “Wilson had once admitted that though he had trouble speaking one on one with anyone, he could convince virtually any crowd, and indeed had accomplished that throughout his career – as a teacher, university president, governor, and president. When he could not spellbind an audience – as he could not at Versailles and with small groups of senators – failure beckoned. Wilson decided to orate the League of Nations into existence, circumventing opposing senators, embarking on a grand whistle-stop tour designed to directly sway tens of thousands of their constituents… he commenced a grueling 22-day 9,981 mile speaking tour designed to save his League. He was not up to it.” Wilson’s health gave out, his speeches fell flat, and he went from someone likely running for a third term at the beginning of the tour to the sickbed by the end of it. At some point, the people tire of the lectures, and they become an ineffectual drag (as Clemenceau said of Wilson, he “talks like Jesus Christ, and acts like Lloyd George.”) http://vlt.tc/7bb But the American people did re-elect Wilson before they tired of him, in 1916, by the narrowest of margins (277 electoral votes, 3,800 votes in California being the difference). He was helped by the fact that his Republican opponent, Charles Evans Hughes, was a politically unskilled prevaricator of the first order who attempted to be all things to all people, always on both sides of an issue depending on which audience he spoke to – to the point that the press gave him the nickname “Charles Evasive Hughes.” He was rather like an Etch a Sketch. http://vlt.tc/7am
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The problem with Wilson, as with Obama, was his utopian instinct. The problem with Wilson’s pushing the League of Nations wasn’t that it led to Wilson’s physical collapse but that the League of Nations was formed. Ask the Ethiopians, the Spanish, and the Chinese, to name just a few, how well that worked out. In fact, there’s a good argument to be made that the League’s existence ironically allowed the Axis powers to rise as they did, just as the U.N. today provides cover and legitimacy to the world’s worst corruptocracies.