The President

"Now Mr. Wilson's opportunity is here." A meditation on a new president's character, strengths, and poetic sensibilities

THERE have been twenty-seven Presidents before him, but no one of them has brought to the White House so rounded an achievement of ambition as Mr. Wilson. Some have sought power with a more passionate eagerness; others have been as covetous of opportunity; others still have been more eager to enforce their creeds of morals and of politics. No one but Mr. Wilson has felt that the Presidency marked for him the perfecting of a personal ideal. For, before his eyes, there has steadily remained a single goal toward which the serious man should strain if he would reach the fullness of his powers—the ideal of the student merged into the man of great affairs. To be scholar and statesman, too, is indeed to achieve the whole of education.

Men shrug their shoulders and say that Mr. Wilson is ambitious. It is a patent charge. Mr. Wilson is passionately ambitious. Yet why should we he hypercritical, in men, of that essential quality we so ardently instill into our boys? Ambition is not the thing, but what lies behind it; and, as his critics do not realize, it is not to possess, but to become, that has been Mr. Wilson’s dearest hope. To him his election is the symbol that the scholar has attained his largest opportunity.

I press the point because it will be found, I think, a key to Mr. Wilson’s whole career. From boyhood his mind was scholarly, but while his childhood’s friends were bent on growing up to be carpenters or generalissimos, this boy dreamed steadily of a political career. From the first printing-press he ever owned or borrowed, he struck off his cards: ‘Thomas Woodrow Wilson, United States Senator from Virginia’; and when the proprieties of advancing years constrained him to a more impersonal expression of his ambition, he continually wrote and taught that he was the most sagacious scholar who oftenest left his study for the marketplace, and that the wisest politician was he whose hours were oftenest passed in studious places.

Apt scholars find great teachers. Early in life Mr. Wilson chose his with the confidence of natural kinship. All alike were scholars and all men of affairs—a noble roster to which he refers with esteem and gratitude. There were John Stuart Mill, who had hammered out his theories in the House of Commons; Morley, famous in statecraft, and prince of biographers in our time; De Tocqueville, who learned his wisdom among men; the worldly-wise authors of the Federalist; the inimitable Bagehot, who drew his knowledge from the counting-house and the working machine of the British Constitution; and ‘an arrow’s flight beyond them all,’ Burke, who ploughed his philosophy with experience and reaped experience from his philosophy. A different school is theirs from the closet theories of Montesquieu, of Spencer, of Rousseau, and of Hume, differing by half a world; and at this school, where theory is squared to the unbending practices of men, Mr. Wilson has been a life-long student.

If a man means to be a scholar and a politician, too, he had best begin by being a scholar. With Mr. Wilson this was the natural road. He became a professor by virtue of inheritance, a strong intellectual bent, and a certain elusive reticence, even now discernible in him, which made retirement congenial. He enjoyed the life. An insatiate reader, he loved to teach young men and to light their torches from his own. There is about him a kind of austere enthusiasm which warmed young dry-as-dusts into life, and gave to their more elegant contemporaries a first taste for serious things. It was solely to raise the intellectual standard of the students that President Wilson first introduced into Princeton those thoroughgoing reforms in education which, by a kind of fatalistic stride, led him far beyond his earlier purpose and brought the college to the brink of democratic revolution.

Is it not Sir Walter Scott who says that, even from a chapter of the Good Book, he could scarcely learn more of life and living than from the talk of a chance driver, in the breezy companionship of the box-seat? This is the sentiment of one who dearly loves his fellow men. A like passion for acquaintance often stirs Mr. Wilson. Yet it is not the ‘touch of nature’ which lures him on, but the steady, eager search for some unhackneyed point of view, some fresh check or stimulus to his own social and political creed, some new opportunity of putting theories to the test. ‘If you know what you are looking for,’ he says in a characteristic passage, ‘and are not expecting to find it advertised in the newspapers, but lying somewhere beneath the surface of things, the dullest fool may often help you to its discovery.’

This same thought has evidently lodged in Mr. Wilson’s mind throughout the presidential campaign. To a hundred audiences he has preached the strange doctrine that wisdom lies in a multitude of counselors. While he is President, he declares, the bankers shall not dictate the regulation of the currency, nor shall the manufacturers prescribe the tariff, but he will ask the opinion of men of all sorts and all conditions. So far as he is humanly able, an entire people, through him, shall have access to their government.

It is an old idea of democracy this, that the chief should be the personal representative of each member of the tribe. It is so old that it has become fresh and new again. Whether the idea can be practically carried out, on the vast stage of the United States, can only be surmised. In the smaller field of New Jersey, however, it has been surprisingly successful. There, for two years, Governor Wilson has sat, with doors wide open. There he has welcomed all men; only none might have an audience beyond the range of other ears. In such a chamber the whisperings of the agents of ‘business government’ echo terribly; only matters which bear to be uttered in the presence of witnesses can be transacted there.

In England, where the university is the training school of public life, Mr. Wilson’s career might seem natural enough. Here in the United States one may say with confidence that it would have been impossible even a dozen years ago. A democracy must be disciplined before the expert is tolerated. It has been the American custom to select as a presidential candidate some state governor, more on account of the advertisement the position has given him than for the sake of the training which it implies. The amateur, not the professional, is the habitual choice of universal suffrage. No great lawyer, if we except Lincoln (selected for very different reasons), has ever been elected President. Taft, the trained administrator, was elected on another man’s record. Indeed, if we pass over Grant, the soldier, no man truly eminent in a profession has been elected, from the earliest days of the Republic, until this teacher of boys was called to teach men. In a nation whose creed it has been till very lately that a ‘smart’ man may turn his hand to anything, the other name for professional is ‘theorist’; and old men can remember no campaign in which the cry of ‘theorist’ has not been as deadly a weapon as the arsenal affords. Those who desired change because they had knowledge were sometimes called ‘visionaries,’ sometimes ‘dreamers,’ but ‘theorists’ was the good old constant word. Civil Service reformers were ‘benevolent’ theorists, tariff reformers ‘pernicious’ ones. The most practical President of our generation found it necessary to back each measure of reform with the emphatic assurance that he was no theorist. And of all theorists the most theoretic is the college professor.

Mr. Wilson himself tells a story characteristic of the position of learning in a democracy. Two men sat in his audience, and it seemed they liked his speech. ‘Smart man,’ said one. ‘He talks sense.’—‘Sounds so,’ said the other; ‘but what gets me is how a sensible man can stay cooped up in a college for twenty-five years.’ There is a little exaggeration here. Most people thought thus until little more than a decade ago. Then trouble taught them just as it has taught them in the grim days of the sixties. There was a stir of discontent in the land. America was no longer an easy place to live in. Her vast resources began to contract before the mighty increase of population. It often took more than strong body to make a living. Strikes and lockouts grew in frequency. Socialism, looked upon as a senile disease of the old world, began its ominous spread. Big business was hiring its political partners in the open market. Clearly government was a more difficult art than people thought. Criticism from abroad we came to accept with unheard-of meekness. Vocational training sprang up in the schools. Specialization became a familiar word, and ‘Jack-of-all-Trades’ ceased to be an ideal for boys to live up to. American medicine began to work miracles of discovery which touched the national imagination with a sense of the infinite value of scientific methods. The universities, under the leadership of Wisconsin, began to supply experts for public service. Longer terms of office in governmental positions set new standards of efficiency. The digging of the Canal at Panama was a gigantic advertisement for the expert way of doing things. And now the final tribute of democracy to the professional ideal is the election of a Professor of Politics to the Presidency of the United States.

Mr. Wilson has schooled himself to a wide knowledge of current affairs. But an expert in business, using the word in the narrower sense, he can never be. Like violin-playing and domestic economy, the ways of business must be learned when one is young. Moreover, in the United States, the business of making money has become so highly specialized a pursuit that all Mr. Wilson’s prejudice against the exclusive and ungenerous in mind has been roused against it. The myopia of business makes him distrustful of its wisdom. Constantly, as he endeavors to orient his theories to the facts, his speculative cast of mind, though it may enable him to grasp the broad principles of business, suffers the methods to elude him. Moreover, Mr. Wilson, as his father before him, has always been a poor man, and in his household, success has never been reckoned at a cash value. With lack of interest, aptitude, and experience, it is small wonder that Mr. Wilson does not gauge the closeness of the bond between a nation’s business and its contentment. No man of business inclination would have sat for years on the Carnegie board, awarding pensions according to fixed methods, and then have himself applied for a pension obviously at variance with the rules. It is an odd gap in Mr. Wilson’s equipment, and one which he seems unconscious of. There is no phrase he more often uses than the practical refrain, ‘Now let’s to business.’

Mr. Wilson was born a Presbyterian. His father was a Presbyterian minister, and the Woodrows, his mother’s people, were Presbyterian to the core. He himself is an elder of the church, and the Scotch in him accentuates that seemliness which is so salient a characteristic. His devotion to the church is not conventional. Intellectually, he respects it as the central pillar of an orderly world. Spiritually, he enjoys its silent conduits of communion with his fellows, and the opportunity it gives for serious reflection. It was natural for him to join, at Princeton, the poorer Second Church instead of swelling the assured success of the First. Where he was needed, there he went.

The Kirk has made more of the stuff we call character than many of her gentler sisters; and although beneath her moulding hand that stuff often takes angular and ungracious shapes, we have learned to admire and respect it. Mr. Wilson is not without the dour in his composition. There is about him that rigidity, part diffidence, part dignity, which, though it prove a barrier to intimacy and death to good-fellowship, may yet be the salvation of a President. He is not an agreeable man to ask favors of. He has not the solid companionableness of Mr. Cleveland. He lacks the persuasive charm of Mr. McKinley, and the pleasant chuckle of Mr. Taft. His wit is a less human substitute for humor. He is too impersonal for sentiment except for deep things, and too self-conscious to find the straight path to another’s heart.

All this is very far from saying that Mr. Wilson is unattractive. On the contrary, the fine air of distinction sits naturally upon him. Excepting Jefferson and Lincoln, we have not had another President who, by some right, human or divine, is, like Mr. Wilson, an artist. He knows that form, and form only, can give immortality to truth. ‘Be an artist,’ so he wrote some years ago, ‘or prepare for oblivion’; and this duty of being an artist has been a main business of his life. How excellent is his attainment! His History, written under compulsion and in haste, does him scant justice. But his Congressional Government, his essays, best of all, his speeches, show his full powers. His language, unmindful of the effort it has cost, flows with easy freedom to the very outline of his thought. And that thought is never obvious. In argument he never storms an adversary’s position, but enfilades it. He makes diversions in the rear, or advances from some unexpected quarter. He has not the sententious solemnity of Mr. Cleveland’s periods, or the propterea quods of Mr. Taft’s foolscapped phrase. Still less has he in common with the pitchforkings of Mr. Roosevelt’s utterance. He has more temper in his steel than any of them; but his blade is delicate, and there is rough work to be done.

Much faith comes from listening to Mr. Wilson. He talks quietly, as becomes a professor, but he talks earnestly and with a beautiful accuracy. His argument is clear. He has no tricks of manner or of gesture, but at times his voice sinks as he speaks of some principle of democracy as of a holy thing. There is in his speech no venom of personal allusion, no veneer of smartness, no line spoken for applause and very few diversions to relieve the strain of thought. I have heard him remark that he should talk for an hour; then, taking his cue from the last speaker, start on his impromptu speech; pass in review the prime issues of the campaign, and, precisely as the minute-hand regained the hour, close the argument by leading logically to his starting-point. I have heard him quote Burke as his master, and discourse on high levels of the philosophy of Democratic Government; and looking at the workingmen round about me, I have seen them listening with undeviating attention as they wrinkled their foreheads in some supreme intellectual effort, and I have gone away saying to myself, ‘The story of Athens may be true after all. Such things are possible in a democracy.’

There are other elements besides mastery of speech which enter into Mr. Wilson’s power over his audiences. For those audiences, as representative of the great mass of people, he feels a natural sympathy and liking, powerfully reinforced by his reasoned conviction of the wisdom of government by the people. The orderliness of his mental processes makes one imagine him a kind of intellectual mechanism, working according to some preconceived plan. The reality is widely different. Mr. Wilson is a very human person, detached from his fellows partly by shyness, partly by a native austerity, partly by a dutiful conception of life alien to most of us; a man who, seldom able to chat intimately with a friend, thanks God for one friend, at least, who sill always chat intimately with him, and goes off cycling by himself with Elia crammed into his pocket; a punctilious man, who finds in the conventions a refuge from current intimacies of speech and manner; a soberly ambitious man, disliking the superfluities of intercourse; a man devoted to the cultivation of his talents and to the expansion of his energies, fitting himself unceasingly to be the instrument of effective service.

A man who wears this habit leads a lonely life. Mr. Wilson makes few confidences, finding on the platform a privacy which would be denied him in the drawing-room or the club. Unwilling to spend himself in the commerce of friendship, he wins men’s affections more rarely than their admiration or esteem. In dealing with others it is to the head rather than to the heart that he appeals, forgetting that to the heart the broader channel runs. Likewise, his judgment of men takes most account of their mental abilities. He likes men because they are able; but, unlike more than one of his predecessors, he does not think them able because he likes them. In ordinary conversation there is, perhaps, too strong a savor of logic in his discourse. ‘Avoid disputation,’ advised the solidest of Americans; but this maxim Mr. Wilson has never learned. Dialectics he loves. An unruly pride of opinion makes him overprize their worth, and often follow his advantage to the bitter end. It is sometimes wiser to lose an argument and win a friend.

I have said that Mr. Wilson likes the people. In the narrower sense, too, he is a Democrat. Virginian born, the winds of Monticello rocked his cradle. His credo has elements of the historic Democratic faith; yet by virtue of his speculative imagination and his sensitiveness of the wide drift of affairs, he is not in any true sense a partisan. With him the bonds of party form no such nexus as that which Mr. Roosevelt hated so passionately to sever. A shrewd leader, high in Democratic councils, said to me during the campaign: ‘Mr. Wilson’s speeches are all right, but the reason we party spellbinders have to work nights and Sundays, is because the Governor forgets there are other folks besides the Independents who are going to vote for him. Our duty is to call nightly on the names of Andy Jackson and the "Historic Party."

This is sound criticism. Mr. Wilson believes in party government, but in party government as a means to a larger end. Years ago, when he was fighting the Second Battle of Princeton, he made a famous Declaration of the faith which he has carried through the halls of the university into the wider campus of the United States.

’The great voice of America,’ he said, ‘does not come from the seats of learning. It comes in a murmur from the hills and woods and farms and factories and the mills, rolling and gaining volume until it comes to us from the homes of common men. Do these murmurs echo in the corridors of the universities? I have not heard them. The universities would make men forget their common origins, forget their universal sympathies, and join a class—and no class can ever serve America. I have dedicated every power there is within me to bring the colleges that I have anything to do with to an absolutely democratic regeneration in spirit, and I shall not be satisfied until America shall know that the men in the colleges are saturated with the same thought, the same sympathy, that pulses through the whole great body politic.’ This is a larger faith than the Democracy has yet dared to confess.

If, in the calendar of virtue, there is one special Presidential excellence, it is courage, and Mr. Wilson is courageous. Cautious and considered as his manner is, there is within him that flash of insight by whose light he can leap through the dark to his decision. Fresh in our remembrance are the early days of the Convention in Baltimore. It was the tip in every buzzing circle that Mr. Bryan’s active support was dynamite. With every regard to the proprieties he was to be decently, deferentially, definitively interred in political oblivion. It was then that Mr. Bryan addressed to each candidate a telegram demanding his attitude in regard to the support of Wall Street. It was a ticklish question, and, except one, every answer was equivocal. On his own initiative, without time for reflection, Mr. Wilson replied with uncompromising frankness; and thesis to the satiric twist which makes Fate’s actions interesting, it was this telegram which made Mr. Wilson, rather than his more prudent rivals, a candidate for the Presidency.

This courage of Mr. Wilson is deserving of still greater credit because his armor against the world has more than one weak joint. He is a sensitive man, with none of the toughened fibre of the veteran politician, nor that exuberant joy of living which makes each blow received lend zest to the buffet given in return. Not that he lacks fighting blood (there is too much of the Covenanter in him for that), or obstinacy, prime heritage of the Scots; but to him fighting, like the rest of life, is a serious thing. It is stuff to try the soul’s strength on, not to enjoy as a fillip to good digestion. He is wary of entrance to a quarrel, and sometimes in his newspaper interviews one is sensible of a tactful answer when a blunt one would have served his purpose with finality. Yet, well within the warrant of the facts, Mr. Wilson’s biographer can say that since Mr. Cleveland’s time no other man in public life has, on occasion, spoken his full mind with a rounder accent or a sublimer disregard of obvious consequence.

At the beginning of this paper I set forth Mr. Wilson’s aversion from theory as theory unsquared with the world. It is this very distrust of abstraction which makes him so deliberate about coming to a decision. A philosopher and not a scientist, his approach to a problem is from the general to the specific. To him, rightness of attitude toward a question is far more significant than the method of treating the question itself. Last summer the public was surprised at his Letter of Acceptance. To many it seemed evasive, to most of us it was indefinite; but because it outlined so neatly his state of mind, it seemed to Mr. Wilson precise almost to the point of particularity. The public was wrong, and Mr. Wilson was right. The important thing for the public was to know the quality of the candidate’s mind, and his attitude toward the trend of the times. The important thing for the candidate was that the public should trust his judgment, that it should extort few promises, and let him come, hands free, to his great opportunity.

And now Mr. Wilson’s opportunity is here. Even those of us who cannot discern a ‘crisis’ in every campaign, or—when our friends think differently -call every issue ‘moral,’ feel that this is a time of hesitation in the affairs of the Republic. The ship of state has turbine engines, but the rules she sails under were drawn for clipper ships. The conservative dreads change because it is change, and by the same token the radical loves it. Between the two is a vast multitude of puzzled, earnest men, each out of step with the next. It is a national misfortune that, in the last campaign, the shadow of a great personality fell athwart an impressive movement of protest, and hid it from the sight of men who would have liked to judge it fairly. Nor must we forget that a substantial, perhaps an overwhelming, majority of Americans believe that among the hodge-podge of suggestions heaped high on the Progressive platform (that curious blending of autocracy and brotherly love, of tariff bounty and Christian charity), are to be found the aspirations of a race. As to whether these aspirations can be attained through politics, people differ; but the influence of the President to make men think and, when they think, to shape their thoughts and lead them a little further on the illimitable road cannot be doubted.

Is it fanciful to believe that at a time when politics is coming more nearly to express the moral purpose of a nation, the people may have faith in a man whose deepest purpose has been stirred by poetry? Never, perhaps, has Mr. Wilson held a friend so near his heart as he has held Wordsworth, and it was Wordsworth who called poetry ‘the impassioned expression which is the countenance of all science.’ ‘It is,’ he said, ‘the breath of the finer spirit of knowledge.’ ‘Poets,’ said Shelley, ‘are the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present.’ More than this, through the ages, poetry has been the defender and inspirer of liberty, the resolute believer that men can perform the impossible. Who shall say that Gladstone owed nothing to the poetry of the Testament, or Lincoln to his much-thumbed Shakespeare? In the companionship of poets, Mr. Wilson has learned to think high thoughts. Will he write them on golden tables in the poetry of deeds well done?

Rise, ladies and gentlemen, Democrats, Republicans, Progressives. The Atlantic gives you ‘The President of the United States.