Of all the eccentricities of today's resurgent right, one of the strangest has to be the virulent, obsessive hatred of Woodrow Wilson. For a long time, conservatives have talked about turning back the clock to a period before America veered off course. Typically, though, they have wanted to repudiate the 1960s—politically, to repeal the Great Society; culturally, to beat back the sexual, civil, and women's rights revolutions. Occasionally, as when policymakers debated a New Deal-style response to the 2008 recession, conservative polemicists have reached back further, blaming our woes on FDR and Keynesian economics.
But it has been a long time since Woodrow Wilson—intense, private, cerebral—galvanized much anti-government fury. If anything, the reformist president of the Progressive Era, once a great icon of democrats worldwide, has been flayed more often by the left—for his idealistic internationalism (given a bad name by George W. Bush), his wartime suppression of dissent (of which Bush, again, reminded liberals), and his racist predilections (a stain on his record now impossible to ignore). The right had largely ignored or forgotten him.
Until now. Thanks largely to Glenn Beck, who in turn seems to have been influenced by a tiny cluster of academics at conservative outposts like Hillsdale College, Wilson has emerged as the Tea Party's No. 1 "President You Need to Hate," as he's described on the "Beck University" Web site, the talk-show host's repository of baroque counter-histories. Lambasting Wilson has become, according to Mark Leibovich of the New York Times, "a secret handshake among Beck followers." * The craggy-faced Virginian who became a leading political scientist and university president; the celebrated governor of New Jersey who, as president, led the nation to victory in World War I, is faulted for the income tax, the Federal Reserve, bureaucrats, socialists, eugenics, and even the rise of Nazism.
Not surprisingly, much of the brief against Wilson is not just bad as an interpretation of the facts but also demonstrably inaccurate. With the recent spike in Wilson-hating, correctors of the record are emerging from their carrels; Wilson biographer John Milton Cooper, Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, and others have picked apart Beck's more outré Wilson-centered fantasies, while Dana Milbank has had fun shooting fish in Beck's cracker-barrel history. In moments of candor, Beck himself all but owns up to his longstanding ignorance. On one program he seemed unsure whether Birth of a Nation was "the first big silent movie" or "the first silent movie," and said he'd read that it was "based on Wilson's writings"—something one of his guests, uneasily, said he hadn't "verified." (For the record, Griffith borrowed some language from Wilson's History of the American People for the title cards, but the movie was based on a contemporary novel, The Clansman, and Wilson's take on Reconstruction and the Ku Klux Klan was much more moderate than the film's.) "Two years ago," Beck confessed on another occasion—before he read conservative writers like Ronald J. Pestritto who are deeply hostile to Wilson's progressivism—"I knew nothing about Woodrow Wilson." If he now fashions himself wiser, it remains a hastily acquired expertise.
The debunking of crackpot history is necessary, and ridicule fully deserves its place. But it's also important to recognize the nub of truth amid the distortion in the right's Wilson-bashing. After all, Wilson, along with Theodore Roosevelt—who, perhaps because he was a Republican, draws considerably less vituperation from Beck and his ilk—unquestionably bolstered the powers of the presidency and the state in early 20th-century America. While nothing at all like the tyrants of the Tea Party's fever-dreams, these presidents looked upon their predecessors (excepting a few, like Lincoln) as captive to an outmoded view of the presidency. Facing a rapidly industrializing economy, a swelling and diverse populace, and unstoppably powerful corporations, they sought to introduce public accountability and regulation to enhance individual freedom and opportunity.
The signal challenge of the age was the overwhelming power of the corporations. Unchecked by the government, their pursuit of profit created great wealth but consigned millions to misery and injustice. As cruel working conditions and widespread economic unfairness increasingly defied justification, Democrats and Republicans alike turned to reformist politicians—specifically Roosevelt and Wilson—who believed that political leadership meant tackling these problems. They wanted to maintain a dynamic capitalist economy while protecting laborers, farmers, consumers, and others who lacked recourse. Such reformers came to be called progressives.