Originally created 12/29/96

Bill Kirby: Wilson's standing still high



A boy never gets over his boyhood, and can never change those subtle influences which have become part of him, that were bred in him when he was a child.

- Woodrow Wilson

Saturday was the 140th birthday of Woodrow Wilson, Augusta's strongest claim to the White House.

Augustans are always proud to point out the Virginia-born 28th president lived here longer (about 13 years) than any other place in his life. His father was pastor of First Presbyterian, and the little boy known as "Tommy" lived on Seventh Street during and after the Civil War.

Wilson's name was in the news earlier this month when The New York Times Magazine reported the results of the latest poll asking historians to rank the American presidents.

Only four presidents - Washington, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson - had more "great" votes than Wilson, who is tied with Andrew Jackson for fifth place.

An accompanying article writen by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., describes how his well-known father first did a presidential poll in the 1940s. More have followed. But Wilson's stature - among the few "near great" chief executives - has remained constant.

I guess I was curious about Wilson because much I've read in recent years would have us think him a grand failure.

Certainly, he guided the nation through the First World War. But his efforts to build lasting peace from that "war to end all wars" flopped. A second global conflict soon came along, even worse and more cruel than the first.

Perhaps Wilson remains highly ranked because of the esteem in which he is held by that very small fraternity of men who have lived in the home at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

FDR, for example, ranked Wilson with Teddy Roosevelt as both "moral leaders each in his own way and his own time, who used the presidency as a pulpit."

One of the professors polled, Alan Brinkley, admits Wilson is among those who can be "considered both failure and great or near great."

Similarly, Walter Dean Burham of the University of Texas says, "On some very important dimensions, both Wilson and L.B. Johnson were outright failures in my view."

Perhaps.

But to get an idea of Wilson's presidential status, consider that all our recent chief executives - Ford, Carter, Bush and Reagan - are down in the "below average" layer of presidents.

Bill Clinton, is with them there, and history says his second-term prospects for moving up are bleak.

They are not, however, impossible. The president moving up the most in recent decades (Dr. Schlesinger calls it "most striking") is another part-time Augustan, Dwight D. Eisenhower. He ranked 22nd in the 1962 poll, then moved to No. 12 by 1981. Some now rank him ninth.

Woodrow Wilson, however, is still ahead. The little boy who grew up in Augusta went on to become a lawyer, president of Princeton University, governor of New Jersey, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and (still) one of the best presidents in American history.