WASHINGTON — On Thursday night, we sat around, talking about the lawyer and constitutional expert in the White House, a leader both didactic and charming, peacenik and hawk; the Ivy League academic who improbably ascended to the Oval Office on brains, not beholden to anyone; the Democrat, eager to fight economic inequality and help the 99 percent, who would give a government bailout if he had to; the dapper man with large ears, elegant speeches he wrote himself, a love of golf.
We sat around talking about Woodrow Wilson.
And it turns out that the League of Nations was not the most intriguing thing about Wilson. The love of women was.
A. Scott Berg, the author of “Wilson,” was relating the story of how the widowed president wooed Washingtonian Edith Galt with flowers and private romantic meetings reminiscent of the widowed president wooing a Washington lobbyist in the movie “The American President.”
“She was widowed very young,” Berg said of the buxom Galt. “She had not been in love with her first husband and so along comes Woodrow Wilson, the great lover. I’m telling you, she didn’t call him Tiger just because he went to Princeton.”
The author, sounding a bit gobsmacked, continued: “Wilson wrote thousands of letters to his first wife, several hundred to his second. These are the most passionate love letters I’ve ever read. They’re not pornographic, so you don’t have to run out to look for that, but they are incredibly romantic, often sexual, very emotional, deeply, deeply emotional letters. At a certain point, they get sickening. They’re just too much.”
After 10 years of marriage to Ellen, his first wife, he wrote her: “Are you prepared for the storm of love making with which you will be assailed?” When he should have been focused on the sinking of the Lusitania, he was addled with gushy courting of the younger Edith. Which may explain why relentless playboy Leonardo DiCaprio, who made waves with Kate Winslet in “Titanic” and made trouble with Carey Mulligan in “Gatsby,” is interested in playing Wilson (a name probably more familiar to modern moviegoers as Tom Hanks’ volleyball confidant).
The Hollywood Reporter revealed that DiCaprio had optioned Berg’s book to produce a movie and star as the 28th president. (Wilson’s wife, Edith, who stealthily took the reins after Wilson had a stroke, must count as 28 1/2.)
Before the discussion with Chris Dodd, head of the Motion Picture Association of America, and Jane Harman, president of the Woodrow Wilson Center, Dodd showed some clips from the 1944 movie “Wilson,” with Alexander Knox playing the president.
“The picture was a huge bomb,” said Berg, who lives in Hollywood. “The film was made by Darryl F. Zanuck, who was one of the greatest producers in Hollywood history. It was the most expensive movie that had been made by Hollywood at that point.” Berg said it cost $3 million, which may pay the catering bill now.
Despite the superficial similarities to the other smarty-pants in the White House now, Wilson was better in one way — he haunted the President’s Room in the Capitol to keep a sustained dialogue going with members of Congress — and far worse in others.
As one young woman from the Wilson Center put it, “History has judged Wilson as a racist and a sexist.”
As the world mourned Nelson Mandela, Berg had to agree that the Virginia-born Wilson was a racist, even if he was “a centrist” for his time.
“He made statements, no matter what age they were uttered in, they are racist in nature,” the author said. “More important, he famously brought Jim Crow back to Washington. They were just starting to integrate the Postal Service, the Treasury Department, and it was Wilson’s Cabinet members, specifically McAdoo, his Treasury secretary, and Burleson, his postmaster general, who insisted that you can’t have integration in federal offices. The truth is, Wilson’s Cabinet was largely made up of Southern racists.”
And he did not want to cross the block of Southern senators and congressmen he needed to get his progressive “New Freedom” agenda passed. When he was president of Princeton, Wilson worked to curb elitism, trying to get rid of eating clubs, but he did not work to curb racism. When a poor student at a Virginia Baptist college wrote beseeching to come, Wilson answered “that it is altogether inadvisable for a colored man to enter Princeton.”
He made jokes in black dialect and felt that interracial marriage would “degrade the white nations.”
“For me,” Berg said, “the worst thing Woodrow Wilson did as president was what he didn’t do. That was in 1919 when the soldiers came home from the war. Many of them were African-Americans. They came home thinking: ‘This is our moment. We’ve lost brothers, we have shed blood, this is the time we have shown we are full-blooded Americans.’ But he said nothing on the subject. He had global things on his mind.”
Wilson was so consumed with his “New Freedom” agenda, he failed to push for new freedom.
Maureen Dowd is a syndicated columnist who writes for the New York Times News Service.