Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | October 23, 2013

Woodrow Wilson and the Colbert Report

Tuesday evening, Stephen Colbert interviewed A. Scott Berg about his new biography of Woodrow Wilson.

I understand that Colbert’s thing is sustained parody; so, usually, when Colbert is repeating right-wing talking points, he is doing so for humorous effect, to highlight the absurdity, hypocrisy, or simple internal inconsistency of those same talking points. This extends to interviews: not infrequently, when Colbert asks his guest a question in the style of a conservative host, he is serving up softball pitches that allow his guests to respond with a reasoned, incisive point.

This interview seemed different. Berg announced near the beginning of the interview his twin theses: that Woodrow Wilson was one of (or the) “best” of the presidents, and that Wilson was the “most influential figure of the 20th Century.” (I think that both propositions are highly questionable, fwiw.) I may be reading too much into this, but I think Colbert actually manages to push back against the guest’s argument and lay out some real critiques of Wilson. I mean, it is true, for example, that Wilson ran in 1916 on a platform of keeping the US out of the War in Europe, winning reelection, and he then led the US into the War in 1917. Wilson’s decision to bring America into the First World War was criticized by socialists and others at the time, and it has more recently come in for criticism, not just from Glenn Beck and his allies on the Right, but also from non-conservative writers and academics, like David Greenberg, Jill Lepore, and Michael Kazin. And, as Colbert says, the arguments for American involvement in World War One are not nearly as iron-clad as the case for American entry into World War Two a generation later.

This doesn’t seem like Colbert’s normal softball questions.

The interview really focuses only on Wilson’s foreign policy and on one part of his domestic policy: establishing the Federal Reserve. A few other policies, like support for an 8-hour work day, are mentioned in passing. Colbert notably doesn’t bring up some of the strongest grounds for criticizing Wilson — like his administration’s decision, starting a few weeks after his inauguration in 1913, to expand segregation in the federal government, including introducing segregation in the Treasury Department and the Post Office Department (the previous incarnation of USPS). Wilson’s record on civil liberties is simply appalling. It was the Wilson administration that arrested, tried, and imprisoned dissenters like Eugene V. Debs for such appalling crimes as urging people to resist the draft. (It fell to Wilson’s successor, Harding, to pardon Debs; and when your behavior is so petty, vindictive and tyrannical that Warren Friggin’ Harding shines by comparison, that’s saying something.)

Wilson wasn’t all bad; Louis Brandeis was an excellent Supreme Court appointment, for instance. That said, there are a lot of reasons to criticize Wilson. I’m glad that Colbert mentioned a few of them, and in a short interview, it’s impossible to do more than just scratch the surface. But it seems as though the good host held back some of the most powerful ammunition available, and that’s unfortunate. Still, I’ll take what I can get.

Also, do we really need a biopic of Wilson?



  1. Interesting. I read Cooper’s recent bio of WW, and that’s about all the WW that I foresee needing. A deeply uninviting personality.

    Of all the charges vs. Wilson, though, I can spot him the entry into war. I don’t think he was a hypocrite; he wanted in 1916 to stay out, and had the Germans not managed to combine the resumption of unrestricted sub warfare with the Zimmermann telegram, even a warmongering WW might’ve had a hard time getting the U.S. into the war. IIRC, the Germans resumed USW with the full understanding that it might bring the U.S. into the war, but convinced themselves they would’ve won before that happened.

  2. I was not aware of Cooper’s bio, which Amazon tells me came out in 2011. I see that Cooper’s book is published by Vintage (subsidiary of Random House), and Berg’s book is published by Putnam (subsidiary of Penguin). Publishers love to play copy-cat and release rival titles, especially in the bio biz. (Nothing really wrong with that, I suppose…)

    I lately got my fill of Wilson just from reading Margaret MacMillan’s excellent Paris 1919, covering the Versailles negotiations.

    German activities and the fluid situation in 1917 might be enough to clear Wilson on that one count of the indictment, along with the fact that Congress did, in fact, vote for war, I believe by a large margin — itself an indication of changing public mood. (Not that public support for a war is in itself a sufficient reason for war.)

  3. If Hollywood does make a Wilson biopic starring Leonardo DiCaprio, I expect general interest in Wilson biographies to skyrocket.

  4. I don’t think he was a hypocrite; he wanted in 1916 to stay out, and had the Germans not managed to combine the resumption of unrestricted sub warfare with the Zimmermann telegram, even a warmongering WW might’ve had a hard time getting the U.S. into the war.

    Now why didn’t Berg make the ten-second version of this argument?

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