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The Messianic Style

by Michael Knox Beran

Wilson, by A. Scott Berg (Putnam, 832 pp., $40)

The chapter titles in A. Scott Berg’s life of Woodrow Wilson — “Advent,” “Baptism,” “Isaiah,” “Paul,” “Ascension,” “Resurrection,” to name a few — are, when coupled with the Biblical epigraphs, as revealing as anything in the book. The chapter on the Paris Peace Conference is called “Gethsemane.” It is followed by “Passion,” in which the hero breaks down in his attempt to rally the country to the Treaty of Versailles, and “Pietà,” with its epigraph from John 19:40. (“Then tooke they the body of Iesus, & wound it in linnen clothes . . .”)

Curiously, there is no chapter on “Judas,” possibly because Wilson had so many betrayers — from Bryan and Lansing to Tumulty and Colonel House. Notable, too, is the absence of a chapter on “Satan,” devoted to the diablerie of Henry Cabot Lodge, which would have made the book’s symbolical architecture complete.

Berg, whose Lindbergh won a Pulitzer Prize, has written an entertaining study of one of the more extraordinary instances of the messianic temperament in American politics. We follow the career of the anointed one as he attempts to work the successive reformations of Princeton University, the State of New Jersey, the American Republic, and at length all of mankind. At the risk of spoiling the plot, I can disclose that he fails to save the world, although he does end up on the cross. “He accepted the decree of Fate as gallantly as he had fought the fight,” Wilson’s second wife, Edith, wrote after the president’s breakdown in 1919, “but only he and his God knew the crucifixion that began that moment.”

Writing in 1880, Sir George Trevelyan maintained that the successful statesman in the modern constitutional state was, as a rule, the one who “spoke to the question,” and whose clarity and precision of language got the better of rivals whose stirring but inflated rhetoric “spoke to the passion.” The exception came in time of war, when the statesman who spoke to the emotions was the dominant figure.

Thirteen decades later, virtually all democratic statesmen speak to the passion, in peace no less than in war, and do so in the “perpetual hyperbole” Bacon thought “comely in nothing but in love.” Such has been the inflation of circumstance that every decade is now an exceptional one, its run-of-the-mill problems magnified into the moral equivalent of war. Brave new worlds burst upon us with such frequency that every incoming presidency is now conceived as the commencement of a revolutionary epoch, a “game-changing” event worthy of a place in the hyperbolic cycle of New Deals, New Frontiers, and New World Orders.

If the rhetoric of today’s democratic statesmen is distinguished by its exaggeration and louche logic, Wilson himself is partly to blame. Mencken long ago deplored Wilson’s “dependence upon greasy and meaningless words.” But this was only the beginning of his rhetorical sins. Take his signature phrase, “the New Freedom.” At the core of Wilson’s program were proposals for stronger antitrust laws, farm loans, a federal income tax, and a central bank. Give him a pass on the antitrust plank: Laws that prevent monopolistic combinations in restraint of trade do bolster freedom, the freedom to compete. But whatever the merits of agricultural subsidies and federal regulation of the interest rate, it is sophistry to identify them with the creation of new liberty.

Wilson’s semantic slovenliness enabled him to endow his humdrum reforms with a romantic charm. “We live by poetry, not by prose,” he said, “and we live only as we see visions.” It would be truer to say that we live both by poetry and by prose, and that we get into trouble whenever we confuse the one with the other. Wilson himself felt a qualm when he reflected on the hopes his civic poetry aroused. He foresaw the disappointment that must come when people discovered that his “new age” was a lot like the old age, and Berg depicts him in 1918 staggering under the “impossible expectations” he had raised.

Such moments were rare; like the rest of us, he had swallowed the national Kool-Aid. At the back of Wilson’s and every similar American delusion is the same snake, tempting us with the belief that we can realize our hyperbolic fancies and evade the limits that constrain other nations’ dreams. The theologically doubtful idea that the United States has a rendezvous with a providential destiny has been deeply imprinted on the national consciousness from the beginning. Wilson not only took advantage of the national infirmity, he intensified its grip by secularizing the old millennial poetry.

Earlier generations of Americans were slow to accept their secular leaders in the character of prophets and saviors; nor would they invest a secular hero with the providential mantle until he had earned his apotheosis, as Washington did. Setting tradition at defiance, Wilson offered himself as a providentially inspired man before he had done anything provident. When he was nominated for the presidency, the whole of his achievement consisted in having alienated Princeton and governed New Jersey for about a year and a half. Yet when the obscure scholar offered the nation his prophetic services, he was not laughed off the hustings. On the contrary, the country was thrilled.

“America is not merely a body of towns,” Wilson declared. “America is an idea, America is an ideal, America is a vision.” The advent of a president who was not merely the country’s first magistrate but also its chief prophet and high priest of its national “vision” marked a great change in our institutions. After Wilson, no president would be permitted to be a mere mortal magistrate, soberly conducting the business of state. He must be poet, healer, charmer, consoler, and seer. Those more modest souls who resisted messianic pretensions were hooted off the stage, as George H. W. Bush was when he showed no aptitude for “the vision thing.”

It is true that Teddy Roosevelt did more than Wilson to turn the presidency into the office of first showman and national comedian. And Lincoln himself offered a precedent for messianic orations. He, however, had an excuse: When he went to Gettysburg in 1863 he was covered by Trevelyan’s rule, which allows for exaggeration in time of war. At the same time, Lincoln’s language, though passionate, bore some relation to the policy he was advocating. When he predicted that the nation would have a “new birth of freedom,” he meant that it would not have slavery anymore. A rhetoric that equates the growth of freedom with the destruction of bondage is truthful in a way that Wilson’s “New Freedom” oratory is not.

Wilson made the messianic swindle even sillier by yoking it to a philosophy that influenced him rather more deeply than Christ’s: the hero-worship of Thomas Carlyle. Wilson came of the same dyspeptic Covenanter stock as Carlyle, and had the same wasp-venom in his blood. If the reader of the Gospels is urged to transcend his hatreds, the student of Carlyle is taught that great men feed on their contempt for the unheroic herd — “dim millions mostly blockhead.” Wilson, in his efforts to ransom captive Israel with tariff reduction and Federal Reserve legislation, took the advice to heart. “He is a good hater,” his publicist Ray Stannard Baker noted with approval. Wilson’s first wife, a rather sweet woman given to painting landscapes, died while he was in office, and some of the most amusing pages in Berg’s book chronicle the widower-president’s courtship of Mrs. Edith Bolling Galt. The messiah was in love; yet it soon appeared that the lady’s principal charm was the way in which she encouraged her hero to hate. “You are, oh, so fit a mate for a strong man,” Wilson rejoiced. “And how you can hate, too.”

What stands out most sharply in Berg’s account is the rhetorical cast of Wilson’s mind. Naturally his speeches are rhetorical, but what is curious is that his literary prose is no less so — is as rigid as the poor man’s own hardening arteries. In his lifetime his writings were compared to Burke’s, but unlike Burke, who continuously found metaphors so penetrating that they bring us closer to the complexity of the things he is describing, Wilson turned out pattern language that leads nowhere.

One comes to see that not only Wilson’s writing, but his thought, is rhetorical. His policies are as sclerotic as his rhetoric, and serve the same bureaucratic purpose: to overmaster the crowd and compel it to submit to the will of the lawgiver. Wilson was early enamored of law codes; like the Abbé Sieyès, he seems to have carried around in his head “whole nests of pigeon-holes full of constitutions ready-made.” If in his youth he ever joined a club without proposing a reformation of the rules, the fact has gone unrecorded. He would later profess himself a disciple of Burke, but he never heeded Burke’s warning that, in making a fetish of compulsory codes, the enthusiasts of progress overlooked the suppler forms of order inherent in customs, manners, and culture.

Wilson never outgrew his boyish love of the rhetorical and paper-made forms of order. So potent, for him, was the charm of his ideal systems that he could not bear the least tinkering with them. If Princeton could not be reformed precisely in accordance with his visionary design, he would rather quit the university than modify the plan. It was the same with the League of Nations: Better to let it go down in flames in the Senate than allow it to suffer the slightest blemish at the hands of such a fallen angel as Lodge.

After his stroke in 1919, he tottered, white-bearded, about the White House, weeping and reciting limericks, and lying awake at night in Lincoln’s bed, afraid of the dark. He spent many hours in the East Room, where the curtains were drawn so that he could watch silent movies. When he had gone through all the Westerns, he called for Signal Corps footage of his reception in Europe, and in his desolation watched flickering images of himself at the top of fortune’s wheel, adored by delirious crowds. Then he would go out for a drive, in an immense Pierce-Arrow, happy on the old Virginia roads. When he returned, well-wishers would cheer him at the White House gate, their presence having been arranged in advance by Colonel Starling of the Secret Service in an effort to lift the president’s spirits. “You see,” Wilson said, “they still love me.”

His “spiritual and mental rigidity,” Harold Nicolson wrote, was “his undoing.” But if Wilson had “no capacity for adjustment to circumstances,” he had the most astonishing ability to impose a personal fantasy on the world around him. Even after he had fallen into the sere, the man’s willpower was unabated. Like the boy he had once been, the old man dreamt of giving law to the nations; and it is with something like awe that we behold the rhetorical fantasist in his dotage, making notes for his third inaugural address.

– Mr. Beran, a lawyer and a contributing editor of City Journal, is the author of, among other books, Forge of Empires, 1861–1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made.

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