Biographer Link
Princeton Alumni Weekly. September 25, 1978.
Arthur S. Link reflects upon the similarities and differences between the 28th and 39th Presidents of the United States

William McCleery, PAW’s contributing editor, was formerly executive editor of the Associated Press Feature Service and once working in the AP’s Washington bureau.

It occurred to us the other day while reading the newly published 27th volume of The Papers of Woodrow Wilson that President Jimmy Carter might benefit greatly from steeping himself in Wilson’s writings – not only because Wilson was one of our most articulate Presidents and, some think, one of our wisest, but because Carter resembles him in interesting ways: both Southerners, dedicated Protestants, one-term governors, both idealistically inclined. Moreover, Wilson handled successfully, some say brilliantly, domestic economic and foreign peacemaking problems comparable to those Carter faces.

Before passing our idea along to the White House, we decided to check it out with Princeton’s Arthur Stanley Link, the leading authority on Wilson’s life and work, editor of the projected 48-volume Wilson Papers, author of five volumes of a projected eight-volume biography of Wilson (two volumes of which have won the celebrated Bancroft Prize for historical writing), and a distinguished scholar and teacher who has devoted most of his working life to Wilson since writing his Ph.D. dissertation on him in 1945 at the University of North Carolina.

The question “What has Carter to learn from Wilson?” interested Link, and so we arranged to meet with him one late-summer morning in his unpretentious, window-lighted, book-crammed office on the second floor of Firestone Library. Link, now 58, is – as Wilson was – a native Virginian and an ardent and active Presbyterian. When warmed to his subject, he speaks with the kind of passionate enthusiasm that must have helped make Wilson a popular and persuasive orator; and he could hardly have spent so much time on Wilson’s prose without acquiring something of its style. As a result, listening to Link cannot be wholly unlike listening to Wilson himself.

In addition, Link’s tortoise-rimmed spectacles, brush-cut white hair, chino pants, khaki shirt open at the throat with some T-shirt showing somehow suggested the World War I period one associates with Wilson. He consumed cigarettes carefully, like a man trying to stop chain-smoking, snuffing each one out with finality in an ash tray on the coffee table between our two arm chairs. Before putting the main question, we asked whether Carter does inf act resemble Wilson significantly. He rubbed his hands together a moment.

“Carter and Wilson are strikingly similar in many regards: Both Southerners, both Christian idealists, both ‘good’ men, decent, with great personal integrity, who want to do ‘the right thing,’ by which I mean what is best for the majority of the people. Carter is the most avowedly religious President since Wilson, though Franklin Roosevelt was deeply religious in his own, more private way. Truman, too, was religious, in the best sense of the term, though he didn’t use the vocabulary and style of the pulpit as Wilson did and Carter does. Both Wilson and Carter can be called progressive democrats, very intelligent, with disciplined, organized brains.

“But there I think the similarity ceases. Carter I would call a managerial type: he believes that all problems can be solved by intelligence. He was educated as an engineer, and he clearly believes that when a difficult problem arises, you sit down and solve it. Carter is not widely read in history, political science, the social sciences, literature, the humanities, as Wilson was. The comparison is not entirely fair, though, because Wilson was the best-educated President we have ever had except perhaps for Jefferson and Madison. He was extremely well-read in the fields I’ve mentioned.

“After all, in addition to his Princeton A.B. degree Wilson earned a Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins during one of its periods of great excellence, and he had his legal education at the University of Virginia. The 27 years between his Ph.D. and his election as President of the U.S. were devoted to extraordinary study of mankind and governmental and economic systems. He head a tremendous fund of knowledge to draw on when he became President; he also had a tremendously disciplined brain, so that he could put his knowledge to practical use. When the time came to formulate plans and programs he could draw on his background and formulate his own policies. The whole concept of the Federal Reserve System, for example, was in his mind by 1912, soon after he became President, and this was true of all of his major domestic policies.

“Talking of contrasts between Carter and Wilson: one is simply…what shall I say? It’s not that Carter lacks charisma – I think he has some – but he is unable to communicate great ideas and to formulate great programs in language that will capture the hearts and inspire the minds of the people, as Wilson could. Carter can say the most important things in the dullest way, particularly in public addresses. He is much better in unrehearsed encounters, press conferences and the like. But on the whole, he has, so far, a miserable public style. I want to emphasize that I have enormous respect for Carter as a man, but I do feel that his leadership so far has been inept; he has not been able to rally the country.

“Wilson, by contrast, along with his great knowledge, had an unparalleled grasp of the English language. He could change history through rhetoric. He was probably the greatest orator since Edmund Burke. The majesty of his prose could and did rally people to a cause.”

We suggested that through television and radio Carter has much more direct access to the people than Wilson had.

“But that is no substitute for the ability to rouse them with language, as Churchill could, and even in his demagogic way, Hitler, who was a monster but a master orator. FDR had this ability, Lincoln had it, Daniel Webster.”

Might Carter be helped by studying some Wilson speeches? “He might.” Any one speech in particular? Link thought, nodded. “‘Leaders of Men.’” He got up and took Volume 6 from the long line that marched in uniform covers across his desk and an adjoining table. “He delivered this first in 1890 from a hand-written manuscript – which was unusual because most of his addresses were delivered from notes and survive in shorthand notes and transcriptions only – and later revised it a bit, typed it himself, and used it on several occasions.”

Seated again, Link opened the book to a slipmarked place. “In this, Wilson draws on a wide range of leaders and thinkers – Calvin, Savonarola, Voltaire, Disraeli, Burke, Denis O’Connell, Thomas Carlyle – and adds views of his own. Any leader could learn from it: not only from the ideas, but from the force and felicity of expression.” Asked to read a few excerpts, he did so with relish:

Men are not led by being told what they do not know. Persuasion is a force, but not information [italics Wilson’s]; and persuasion is accomplished by creeping into the confidence of those you would lead. Their confidence is not gained by preaching new thoughts to them. It is gained by qualities which they can recognize at first sight, by arguments which they can assimilate at once; by the things which find easy and immediate entrance into their minds, and which are easily transmitted to the palms of their hands…in the shape of applause. …If you would be a leader of men, you must lead your own generation, not the next. Your playing must be good now, while they play is on the boards…

He turned a few pages, and read:

Style has of course a great deal to do with [the effectiveness of] popular oratory. Armies have not won battles by sword-fencing, but by the fierce cut of the sabre, the direct volley of musketry, the straightforward argument of artillery, the impetuous dash of cavalry. And it is in the same way that oratorical battles are won: not by the nice refinements of statement, the deft sword-play of dialectic fence, but by the straight and speedy thrusts of speech sent through and through the gross and obvious frame of a subject. It must be clear and always clear what the sentences would be about. They must be advanced with the firm tread of disciplined march. Their meaning must ring loud and clear.

A turning of more pages. “People sat still for very long speeches in those days.” Then:

Every successful reform movement has had as its efficient cry some principle of equity or morality already accepted well-nigh universally, but not yet universally applied in the affairs of life…The dynamics of leadership lie in persuasion, and persuasion is never impatient.

He closed that volume, replaced it, thought for a moment. “Another Wilson speech that Carter might read with interest would be ‘Democracy,’ which was first delivered in 1891.” He took up Volume 7, and read:

Wilson delivering his inaugural address on March 4, 1913.
Princeton Alumni Weekly. September 25, 1978.
There must be character on the part of the people to judge character on the part of the official. That is the condition precedent to democracy… A correct polity of free popular choice, like our own, depends for its success upon the permanency of a certain character on the part of the people. Without a firm love for order on their part, a sagacious insight into the character of men, and a steady preference for openness and honesty in the conduct of affairs, the whole structure would go presently to pieces.

As Link put that book back in place, he quoted from memory something Wilson had said about writing: “‘You cannot make a great sentence unless you love the cadences of the language, unless you look for those words which will heighten the color, release the light, and mark everything you way with…vividness.’”

We asked whether a man of Wilson’s culture and erudition would have a chance of being elected President today.

“Well, it had never happened before, even then, that a man would move from a university professorship and presidency to the White House. And I’m afraid there has been a tremendous decline in political literacy on the part of the electorate since then.” Pause. “I’m not sure about that. But I think the right kind of speeches still might electrify us.

“Going back to similarities between Carter and Wilson, I think it’s probably significant that both came to the White House as ‘outsiders.’ Wilson in particular came with no promises, no alliances of great consequence. You know the story of how an emissary of William Randolph Hearst came to Wilson and said that the great, powerful chain of Hearst newspapers would support him for President on certain conditions. Wilson replied, ‘Tell Mr. Hearst to go to hell.’ He had no respect for that corrupt lord of the press.” We asked Link if those last five words were a part of the Wilson quote and he said No, they were his own.

“A notable contrast between the two Presidents is that Carter’s background of leadership was limited to that one term as governor, and, I believe, one term as a state senator. But Wilson held a very great position of leadership as president of Princeton from 1902 to 1910, when all of American higher education was undergoing the profound changes that produced the modern American university. Wilson took, and maintained, leadership in that struggle. Presidents Lowell of Harvard and Hadley of Yale acknowledged this at the time. With his one very effective term as governor of New Jersey, Wilson, when he became President, had had ten years of playing a significant leadership role and could step into the White House almost as if he had already been President for one term. I mean in his grasp of domestic affairs; he had much to learn in foreign affairs.”

Link paused, but obviously had more to say. We waited.

“Despite their comparability in the area of religion, there is contrast there, too. Wilson had a highly sophisticated understanding of theology of Biblical literature and scholarship. By 1905 he clearly understood ‘situational ethics,’ which has become the rage in theological education in the last ten years. I want to stop there. I don’t want to seem to be accusing Carter. Incidentally, it’s worth noting how free Wilson was of religious bigotry in his day. Although a deeply committed Christian, he had enormous sympathy for other religions. Princeton was strongly Presbyterian in his day, and he brought the first Roman Catholic, the first Jew, and the first agnostic to its faculty. As governor he appointed the first Jew to the New Jersey Supreme Court, Samuel Kalisch, and as President the first Jew to the U.S. Supreme Court, Louis D. Brandeis.

President Carter.
Wide World.

“Carter is the product of a Southern evangelical culture that is fundamentally simplistic and – I have to say – fundamentally anti-intellectual. It puts the emphasis on sentiment and emotion rather than on the sue of the intellect to interpret God’s dealings with men; on the belief that there are simple and easy solutions and they will prevail. Wilson had quite an awareness of original sin. He knew that there were problems that are intractable. He was no visionary with quick solutions. Hence he was very careful about making promises.”

From reading Link’s biography we knew that Wilson, unlike Carter, was very successful during his first term as President in establishing a strong leadership role in relation to Congress. How did he accomplish that?

“Almost entirely through moral suasion and what I can only call his gift for leadership. Oh, he used patronage to some extent, no doubt about that, but never coercive tactics. He was, in manner, always deferential and respectful toward Congress. He referred to senators and congressmen as ‘my colleagues,’ was courteous and thoughtful – but he got the support he needed for his programs.”

Was it partly because he had the public solidly behind him and could hold over Congress the threat that on any issue he might “go to the people?”

“No, it was simply that he was extremely good at communicating with Congress, an art President Carter hasn’t mastered. He may be learning, but so far it has been one of his worst failures. There is a room off the Senate chamber in the Capitol called ‘the President’s room.’ Wilson would go there frequently to meet and talk with leaders in Congress, a thing recent Presidents have almost never done. He had a very warm working relationship with Congress.”

“Carter sees his role as a manager; Wilson saw his as a moral leader.” - Arthur S. Link
Wide World.
Why has Carter failed to achieve that?

“The answer is complicated, but one main reason is the enormous White House staff which has been a buffer in recent years between the President and Congress, and the people, too, and the heads of governmental departments. The President now has so many assistants of one kind and another that he spends his time running the staff, and the staff runs the country, or tries to. That was definitely not true in Wilson’s time.”

But aren’t the problems facing a President today so much more complex that he needs…? Link broke in to say, “Wilson’s problems were as complex and difficult as Carter’s! Carter hasn’t had to settle a near-war with Mexico, steer the country as a neutral in the early stages of a World War, then deal with preparedness, with entering that war, and participating in the peace conference after it!”

What about the increased complexity of today’s weapons? Link shook his head. “Wilson had comparable decisions to make about weaponry – even including poison gas – and in wartime! No, I think it’s a mistake to say that because the world is more complex today a President can’t stay on top of his problems. There have always been only 24 hours in a day – for kings, czars, emperors, and presidents. It’s a question of how those hours are spent. You can talk about complexity as much as you please, but Wilson addressed himself to important problems and didn’t waste time. A President with a staff of 400 has to spend most of his time dealing with that staff. You have to take the position that you are the leader. Truman put it very well: ‘The buck stops here.’ FDR had only two or three assistants in the White House before 1938.”

Why has the staff grown so?

“I think the political insecurity of recent Presidents is one main cause. And by ‘political insecurity’ I mean the fact that no President since Truman has really been the leader of his part, except Johnson, briefly. The notion of the executive administering through a staff started with Eisenhower, who had had no experience in politics before coming to the White House, and in fact was not very much interested in politics. His experience was all in the military, where everything is done through staff, to the point where a general isn’t permitted even to make his own phone calls! Ike simply transferred the military command system to the White House. Kennedy perpetuated it because it suited his insecurity and youth. Johnson operated more directly, but he kept the system; and under Nixon, the most insecure of all, it took a quantum leap. It’s a common assumption today that it ‘has to be this way,’ but if we had a Wilson in the White House we’d see a dramatic change.

“It’s axiomatic today that the President has to have a battery of speech-writers. This began with FDR, and it’s been assumed ever since that a President hasn’t the time – or the capacity! – to write his own speeches. The whole office of the Presidency has become so bureaucratized and overstaffed that there isn't time for the President to perform a leadership role. Carter has shown that when he does take hold personally he can be effective in dealing with a problem, but it’s clear that he perceives the presidential role as that of manager rather than leader, and in a democracy, a bureaucracy is no substitute for creative and dynamic leadership.”

Is that the principal lesson Carter has to learn from Wilson?

“Yes, I think so: the lesson of what leadership really consists of; how Wilson was able to do the job so well with so little help. He was the most efficient man I’ve ever encountered in my historical studies.”

Would Wilson have relied much on public opinion polls if they had existed in his day? “They did exist then – conducted by newspapers and by the Literary Digest.” But were they any good? “Perhaps not. But Wilson wouldn’t have been much influenced by them anyway. He always tried to get a ‘feel’ for the mood of the people, through conferences, conversations, and the enormous number of letters that came in to him, many of which he read and answered. He knew all the various points of view.

“He had supreme confidence in his ability – an almost mystical ability – to ‘read’ the American people: and one thing he ‘read’ in them was a deep idealism and generosity and compassion, the kind of thing that public opinion polls can’t accurately reflect. He was not interested in setting his course by the people’s superficial mood of the moment. He never did anything of major significance for purely political reasons. Oh, he made compromises on smaller issues, of course – had to – but he was not guided by expediency.”

As if not wanting to seem uncritical of his man, Link added, “Wilson had many faults, like the rest of us, and perhaps his greatest was his over-self-confidence – not so much in himself, personally, as in the correctness of his ideas and principles, and in his ability to organize public opinion back of them, to get political support for them. That he was usually enormously successful in this was the basis for his confidence. But at two critical times in his life he failed. While president of Princeton he failed to put through his ‘quad’ plan for replacing the eating clubs with more democratic ‘colleges’; and as President of the U.S. he failed in his fight for the League of Nations. And in each case it was because he didn’t properly prepare his constituents.

“I have to say, though, that in each case the fault was more in his physical state than in his personality. At both times he suffered physical breakdowns. Ordinarily he was especially sensitive to the necessity for slow progress, for preparing people to accept new ideas. At Princeton this was demonstrated in the great success of his plan to bring 50 young professors as preceptors, and in Washington in the success of his plans for the Federal Reserve System and for tariff reform. Both were products of his method of slow, careful preparation of the public. His normal method was to give leadership, to lay down general principles, to work patiently, and stick at the job.”

Much that is new and enlightening in the question of Wilson’s health is just now coming out, Link said, as a result of the work of Dr. Edwin A. Weinstein, a neurologist who has been at Princeton during the past two years writing a medical biography of Wilson. “It is now known that he had a mild stroke as early as 1896, at the age of 39, which left him temporarily paralyzed in the right arm and hand. He easily learned to write proficiently with his left hand, but switched back to the right when the effects of the stroke passed.

“He handled the ‘quad’ fight badly because of another and more severe stroke in 1906. At least the second stroke was correctly diagnosed at the time, but the medical records were not made public, and that stroke was referred to merely as a ‘breakdown.’ Mrs. Wilson knew of the 1906 stroke, but the university trustees did not, and we now know – it was learned as recently as 1962 – that in 1906 he was told that he probably had only a year or two to live, and this undoubtedly caused him to try to push through the ‘quad’ plan without his usual patience, before his time ran out. The same was true of his effort in the fall of 1919 – after a massive stroke – to push through the League of Nations. Had his health held then, he would undoubtedly have found a way to compromise with his opponents and obtain ratification of the Versailles Treaty.

“Looking at the whole life, you see a series of great accomplishments – in scholarship, in educational leadership, in politics, in economics – interrupted by physical failures.”

In his biography, Link quotes Col. House, long-time Wilson aide and confidante, as having called Wilson “one of the most contradictory characters in history.” Was he?

“No! Colonel House was! One thing I’ve learned is that Wilson had a highly unified mind. His thought changed through the years, but it moved forward incrementally. It did not gyrate. In politics and economics, his thought was surprisingly consistent from youth to old age, though, as he said himself, he was the first to change his opinions in the light of new facts.

“As a student at the University of Virginia in 1880 Wilson wrote an essay on Gladstone in which he said, ‘Great Statesmen seem to direct and rule by a sort of power to put themselves in the place of the nation over whom they are set, and may thus be said to possess the souls of poets at the same time that they display the coarser sense and the more vulgar sagacity of practical men of business.’ The same thought and nearly the same language reappear 19 years later in ‘Leaders of Men.’”

What has Carter to learn in foreign affairs from the philosophy and practice of Wilson?

“Wilson believed that ‘God presided at the inception of the United States’ out of all the races and bloods of the world, expecting it to serve mankind as a model of liberty and self-government on a continental scale; expecting it to work constantly for peace, particularly through a world peace-keeping organization; to promote in various largely indirect ways the struggles of other countries to attain liberty, self-government, and human rights; to refuse to support oppressive regimes; to trade as freely as possible with other nations; and, as a rule, to avoid direct intervention in other people’s civil wars, because it almost never works. True, Wilson did support the Mexican Revolution (Mexico was nearby), but he retained a hands-off policy on the Russian Revolution, partly because he knew that nothing the U.S. or the Allies could do would really influence the long-range outcome.

“Wilson was guided in his conduct of foreign affairs by what I’ve called ‘the higher realism’: the conviction that actions based on sound ethical principles may seem ‘idealistic’ at the time but are likely in the long run to prove far more realistic and durable than ‘realistic’ actions based on expediency – though, paradoxically, expediency is necessary at all times; that one has to be ‘wise as a serpent and gentle as a dove.’ He believed in keeping one’s eye on the long view, in accepting some degree of failure as inevitable in any complex enterprise, but in persevering in what one believes is right. Above all, he believed that nothing good is achieved permanently by force – he abhorred war, though he conceded that it was necessary in self-defense.”

Would Wilson approve of Carter’s efforts to make Russia abide by the Helsinki agreement and respect “human rights”?

Wilson sitting with his first cabinet.
Princeton Alumni Weekly. September 25, 1978.
“What we now call ‘human rights’ – protection against terror, enslavement, oppression of all sorts – Wilson called ‘liberty.’ But the whole construct of Wilson’s ideas was very similar to Carter’s. Where I see a contrast is in Carter’s use of a shotgun approach: a campaign so generalized it has been on the whole ineffective. Wilson limited his efforts for human rights to those particular areas where he thought American power and influence would produce results. In Mexico, for example, he effectively supported a revolution that promised to promote the progress of human liberty. And later, when U.S. power had been mobilized in a decisive way for World War I, he used that great power – both during the war and the peace conference – to probe ways of promoting and protecting human rights. He was not wholly successful in Europe, but he was in Mexico. I suspect that Wilson today would concentrate his efforts on those issues on which the moral opinion of mankind could be mobilized and would support human rights through organized multinational efforts.

“I believe he would stand personally where Carter does on the issue of human rights in Russia today, but it’s my feeling – just my feeling – that he would put the greatest possible emphasis on promoting trade with Russia, on personal and cultural relationships, an don disarmament, in the hope that as these channels were opened they would operate greatly to change Russian instincts and practices. Again, he would take the long view of history. He would feel – as I think Carter does – that the main problem of our time is disarmament and peace, that these should be given the first priority.

“Wilson worked from a basis of carefully thought-out fixed principles: a series of basic assumptions of what was morally, socially, politically right and wrong. With that, he used the instrumentalities at hand to get the best solutions possible. He was able to compromise without losing sight of his true objectives. This gave him a sense of security.

“Only a person with that kind of security can truly comprehend and deal with the ambiguities and perplexities of life, can freely and fearlessly run its moral risks, and provide strong leadership. As Luther said, ‘Believe in God and sin bravely.’ Wilson was not a fundamentalist. By the standards of his day he was a modernist. But he believed God had ‘called’ him, given him a mission, and would sustain him in it. He believed there were fundamental morals that men and nations violated at their peril; by the early 1900s he had come to believe that being a Christian meant a life of service to others, and that ‘egoism is the fundamental and great sin.’ This caused him to seem self-righteous to some – and he was! All great men are to a degree!”

But, we said, Wilson’s “higher realism” seemed to be based on a very down-to-earth understanding of human nature and what can and cannot be expected of it.

“That’s true. He saw the human nature in everything.” Link read form another volume, an excerpt from a 1912 speech: “‘No Government…is a mechanism; no mechanical theory will fit any Government in the world, because Governments are made up of human beings, and all the calculations of mechanical theory are thrown out of adjustment by the intervention of the human will. Society is an organism, and every Government must develop according to its organic forces and instinct.’” Putting the volume away, he said Wilson believed that the true nature of government could be found hidden in the nature of society, and that society is compounded “‘of the common habit, an evolution of experience, and interlaced growth of tenacious relationships, a…living, organic whole, structural, not mechanical.’ If only all statesmen could understand that - !” He shook his head.

This was originally published in the September 25, 1978 issue of PAW.