The Next Woodrow Wilson?

Sen. Barack Obama’s Philadelphia Address was clearly crafted to stand alongside the historic documents and speeches of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. But in its amazing, quasi-messianic confidence in rousing and inspirational effects that an Obama presidency would have on the entire world, it instead arouses memories of a liberal Democratic president whom conservatives remember all too well — Woodrow Wilson.

The point was not lost on at least one venerable mainstream political pundit. Jim Hoagland wrote in the Washington Post, “… it is naive, or extremely self-serving, of Obama followers to suggest that his very presence in the Oval Office will cause other nations to reconsider their attitudes or policies toward the United States, or open doors for him abroad closed to others. They — and he — will be surprised at how short the ‘Obama effect’ will be in international politics if he is elected.”

Obama’s “genetic makeup,” Hoagland continued, "shapes his view of the world much more than it would shape the world’s view of him or the United States. Countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt — Obama referred to them as "so-called allies" in his heralded 2002 speech opposing the Iraq invasion — would judge him on such remarks and on what he says and does about Israel, Iran and Iraq. The back story of his multiracial, multinational parents and his rise from humble origins to success and idolatry would carry little weight at the conference table.”


The case may be put less elegantly, but a lot more bluntly: This is the kind of out-of control fantasizing that we have not seen in the U.S. presidency since a crazed Woodrow Wilson wreaked havoc across the world in his last two years in the White House, dismembering the ancient empires of Europe after World War I in the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference in servitude to a foolish and ill-thought-out intellectual principle — national self-determination.

Wilson, like Obama, was convinced that his own life experience made him uniquely qualified to heal the political and racial wounds, not just of the United States but of the entire world. Instead, he left behind him an infernal chaos which led remorselessly to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the effective extinction of European civilization.

Wilson, it should be remembered, was also an ugly racist who re-segregated the White House and the federal bureaucracy and cried tears of joy at the repulsive movie “Birth of a Nation.”

But for those of us of Irish and British backgrounds (Sen. Obama is not the only one who can claim an interestingly contradictory parental lineage), another example suggests itself.

For there was a British prime minister who, like Sen. Obama, was born of the most humble and even despised stock (he was illegitimate) from a race that was then marginalized (he was Scottish). And like Sen. Obama, he showed moral conviction and indeed courage in opposing a controversial war, only to rise rapidly to the pinnacle of national power not long after it ended.

His name was Ramsay MacDonald, the first ever Labour Party/Socialist Prime Minister of Great Britain. When he took power, his nation was still the largest empire the world had ever seen — directly controlling one quarter of the population of the human race and one quarter of its territory. (The Soviet Union, even under Stalin, never managed directly to control more than one seventh or one sixth of the global population). But by the time MacDonald left office for the last time 13 years later, his nation’s defenses were stripped bare and it was a sitting duck for the Nazi air force rapidly arming across the North Sea.
Extremely limited rearmament measures pursued after 1935 by the Conservative governments of Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain were ferociously attacked by a still-pacifist Labour Party that MacDonald had created before abandoning it. He also led Britain into unprecedented bankruptcy in 1931.

Yet MacDonald, whom Winston Churchill memorably characterized as “the Boneless Wonder,” came back to the prime minister’s office in Number 10, Downing Street again and again. The British aristocracy came to love him. King George V revered him and thought him one of the greatest statesmen of the age. The worse times became, the more MacDonald flew above them, impelled by an endless stream of empty, beautiful rhetoric about the healing of the nation‘s wounds, the coming establishment of Social Justice and the ending of class and race conflicts that had plagued Britain (supposedly) for centuries. Is this starting to sound familiar?

It is perhaps fitting that MacDonald’s second and most disastrous government from 1929 to 1931 (Undeterred, he went on to lead a third one from 1931 to 1935) also built the most disastrous airship ever created — the hapless R-101. Underpowered and overweight, it crashed in flames on a gentle hillside in France, killing some of MacDonald’s Cabinet members and senior officials who had built it to prove the superiority of their state-sponsored aviation over those pesky private companies that were about to come up with the single seat monoplane Spitfire and Hurricane fighters that won the Battle of Britain.

MacDonald’s fearful example, like that of the infernal Wilson in the United States, teaches the ever-recurring lesson that, while feel-good, soaring, inspirational rhetoric certainly has its place in the political world, as great democratic leaders from Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill to Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan have all shown, it must be combined with a sound, grounding in financial and political reality. FDR, Churchill, Thatcher and Reagan all had decades of experience, achievement and controversy in administration, government and national politics before they became their nation’s leaders. Woodrow Wilson and Ramsay MacDonald did not. They won power by appealing to the higher angels of their people’s nature, but once they had that power, their incompetence and monumental vanity ensured that demons of chaos and suffering were unloosed across the world instead. As Yoggi Berra said, all we’re seeing is deja vu all over again.