Patricia O’Toole, author of The Moralist, a new biography of Woodrow Wilson, reveals a complicated portrait of America’s 28th president. O’Toole describes Wilson as a complex man who was comfortable with segregation, firmly set on building international alliances and a skilled orator whose deteriorating health resulted in his wife running the country behind the scenes in the final years of his presidency.

O’Toole notes that Wilson had a history of racism. He was comfortable with upholding segregation as a Southern man trying to get his economic reform plan passed. Wilson believed segregation was they key to “harmony between the races,” O’Toole tells uPolitics. He also held prejudices against the Japanese and facilitated several military interventions in Mexico and the Caribbean. O’Toole describes Wilson’s racism as “a very dark mark on his record.” In the past few years, Princeton students have expressed their displeasure over Wilson, who was a Princeton professor and president, having his name plastered all over the campus.

At the time of Wilson’s presidency, the United States had had a successful run with isolationism for over a century. According to O’Toole, Wilson initially felt that the United States should not get involved in World War I, as it had never before fought in a European conflict. Following a multitude of American casualties from German submarines, Wilson ultimately decided to declare war in order to allow the country to do it on its own terms rather than as retaliation. In order to convince Congress, Wilson proclaimed: “The world must be made safe for democracy.” Two years later at the 1919 Paris peace conference, Wilson was determined to create a League of Nations in order to prevent another world war – an aspiration that would be a great struggle to achieve in the coming years.

This battle came in part due to Wilson’s failing health. O’Toole observes that Wilson went on a speaking tour in an attempt to sway the American public and was, for the first time, unsuccessful. He had a stroke, which was hidden from the American public. As his health deteriorated, Mrs. Wilson began to make decisions behind the scenes for her husband. According to O’Toole, Wilson was eventually reduced to best responding to yes or no questions. “That’s not a good thing for big, complicated issues that might need some discussion before you get to ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ so it was not a good situation for the country at all,” O’Toole says. 

Below is a full transcript of O’Toole’s interview.    

He was a deeply principled person. He grew up in a religious family, his father was a Presbyterian preacher. And a lot of biographers have focused on that a source of his moral spine. But he was also a student of government from the time he was a teenage boy. Instead of having an actor’s picture hanging in his bedroom, he had a British prime minister’s picture. And he wanted to be a politician and a statesman.

He was the greatest public speaker of his age, started out listening to his father’s sermones and the moved over to political oratory. He thought he could govern by making really great speeches that were well-reasoned and he could talk you into his point of view about something. His speeches often had a pattern of, he would say, “we need to do this because it’s the right thing to do and it will benefit the American people in the following ways.” So that’s just kind of his whole approach to leadership.

While he admired the policy of free trade that the British empire had and he thought the United States should move in that direction, the United States – the Treasury used to get its revenue from taxing imports. This raised the cost of living for everybody in the country and made a few manufacturers rich, so this became a bone of contention for a lot of people. And there was always talk about changing it, but Wilson came along with a really rational program to make some of these changes, and he was able to get through legislation this big package of economic reform legislation faster than any other president before him, and any two presidents since – FDR and LBJ –  managed to do even better. So, he gave us things that we still have – the Federal Reserve Board, the modern income taxes you mentioned, a new anti-trust act in the Federal Trade Commission that basically made it easier for small businesses to compete against big businesses.

The segregation of the civil service was something that people talked about a lot at the time and didn’t like it. And it kind of fell out of view, and it was a few years ago that some students at Princeton discovered this and made a big fuss about it because Wilson was president of Princeton, he was a popular professor at Princeton and then he goes on to become president. And they didn’t like all these things named for Woodrow Wilson, given his record on race.

And the segregation came about when he wanted to pass these economic reforms, he needed the votes of Southern senators and Southern congressmen. They saw these reforms – correctly – as greatly expanding federal authority and they were afraid that once the government got a taste of this, it would interfere in state affairs in other ways and basically wipe off the books the whole idea of segregation and all the state laws that favored it. So, it’s a political compromise. He has to do this to get this legislation passed. And he was a Southerner, so a lot of people thought maybe he went along with it because he was comfortable with it. He actually favored segregation. He thought it was the key to harmony between the races. He couldn’t go toward – very few people in those days could go toward real, full integration. I mean, we’re still kind of a long way from that in some ways. He would have had definite limits about that.

The racism is not just with African Americans. It involves a prejudice against the Japanese as well. It comes up a few times in his presidency.

And also, he does a lot of military interventions in Mexico and the Caribbean. And, not against white governments, but against governments that were black and brown people. And those interventions were really about – the Panama Canal had just opened, and the United States really wanted to have complete control of what they called the “Caribbean Lake.” So they’re about stability in the region, they’re not so much about race. But he did not admire the dictators of Mexico. There were a bunch of them in his time because there was a revolution going on in Mexico. So there is a lot of – that’s a very dark mark on his record, this racism.  

In the beginning of the war, he didn’t think that American interests were threatened by what was going on in Europe. He thought that the United States never fought in a European war and he didn’t see why they should. And then the submarine is a big part of World War I. It’s the first time it’s a big part in a war. There were submarine attacks on passenger ships and cargo ships. Basically, the Germans were trying to starve the British and the British returned the favor by blockading the North Sea to prevent ships from entering the ports up there. They were trying to starve the Germans, so that’s the war at sea.

Wilson is just hoping that nothing will happen that requires the United States to go to war. But by 1917, there are enough attacks – or enough American casualties from these attacks at sea – to make him feel like this couldn’t go on forever. If it did, we were going to get dragged into war, so it would be better to just declare it and have it be your move rather than a response. So, he makes a – he goes to Congress on April 2, 1917, makes a very moving speech. The line that people remember from it is: “The world must be made safe for democracy.” So, that was the ostensible reason for entering the war.

He wanted to – when he went to the Paris peace conference in 1919, he wanted to create the League of Nations to replace the old order of power in the world, which was these great powers would have alliances with other countries, which meant that if one person from one alliance attacked a country in the other alliance, then everybody had to get into the fight. And that was how World War I became a world war overnight. It wasn’t just anymore a quarrel between Austria and the Serbians. So, he thought the way to beat this was to create a global league. This would be the first international association of governments, and the whole world would be in the same alliance and therefore you could work together to prevent war. That was the basic idea.

And he brings this idea back to the United States, and the Republicans had been complaining about this, not liking it. They thought it was an untried experiment, and isolation had actually worked really well for more than 100 years for the United States, so why not just keep that up. So it became this big fight between Wilson and the Senate. And Wilson thought that he had two aces in the hole. One was that the Senate had never refused to ratify a peace treaty, so he thought they were just going to fuss and argue and then in the end they’ll do it. And the other was that he was this great speaker. So, he went on a speaking tour – he had been very successful with this in the past, taking his case, going over the heads of the Senate, taking his case to the American people. But the trouble was, he was in failing health at this point, and he wasn’t at his best when he was out there speaking. You can read his speeches and they’re just not as good as his old speeches. And the American people, they were hearing from the Republicans too and they just thought the Republicans’ argument for staying out of the league made more sense than Wilson’s desire to create an international organization to keep the peace.

The people who really knew the status of things were his wife and his doctor. And the doctor called in some other specialists. According to Mrs. Wilson’s autobiography, one of the specialists said she thought Wilson should resign for health reasons, and the doctor said no, it will be better for him emotionally if he thinks he’s going to recover and return to being the president full-time. So, that’s what got this started. And there were a lot of rumors about how sick he was. He could still hold an intelligent conversation, so from time to time people from the outside were allowed to see him and then they went back to the world and said, “Oh, he still has all his marbles. His speech is a little garbled, a little hard to hear, slurred, but he’s got it all together.”

Then there was the complication of the vice president had already said he would be in favor of the compromises Republicans wanted in order to ratify the treaty, and Wilson was dead-set against any compromises. So, Wilson certainly didn’t want his vice president to take over. So they just kind of limped along day to day, and whenever there was remotely, the tiniest piece of good news, like “the president goes out for a ride in the car,” there would be a White House announcement about it.

The way I read it all was that she was the gatekeeper. And that’s an enormous power, it’s kind of like being Chief of Staff. You can decide, are you going to have Eric come in for a meeting, or are we going to ignore Eric or whatever. She was deciding – you know, memos would come up from cabinet members. The cabinet was basically trying to function on its own, but there were certain things where a presidential decision was required. So this paperwork would come up to the family quarters, and Mrs. Wilson would decide, “Oh, he isn’t having a good day, I’m not going to ask him about this today” or, “He is having a good day so I’m going to ask him about it.”

The cabinet members were asked to frame their questions in a way that could be answered with “yes” or “no.” That’s not a good thing for big, complicated issues that might need some discussion before you get to “yes” or “no,” so it was not a good situation for the country at all.