From the genteel halls of Princeton University, students are trying to pull another American hero from his pedestal. It turns out that Woodrow Wilson, who was president of Princeton before becoming president of the United States in 1913, was an outspoken racist. Therefore, the reasoning goes, Princeton should change the name of its Woodrow Wilson School for International and Public Affairs. This would be a lamentable mistake. Wilson is the ideal person for whom to name such a school. He perfectly represents the duplicity that lies at the heart of much American foreign policy. Removing his name from the school at Princeton would be a way of hiding or downplaying his legacy. Instead, we should study and learn from it.
The State of the Union address feels like a very old American ritual, and it is. Yet many of its features that we take for granted today were in fact added by innovative presidents who decided to shake things up — sometimes for very idiosyncratic reasons. There was Thomas Jefferson, who delivered the speech only in writing— perhaps because he was a terrible public speaker. There was Woodrow Wilson, who put his political science theories on presidential rhetoric into practice by reviving the in-person speech. And there was Ronald Reagan, who took advantage of television to show off special guests sitting in the crowd.
If President Wilson, when he addressed the League to Enforce Peace, at Washington (May 27, 1916), had been content to make an academic speech in favor of the processes of arbitration and mediation, we should have listened with a fatigued and languid attention. Persuasive and cultured orators have exhausted that theme in all the languages of civilization. Rousseau was more eloquent and Kant more acute. On the merits of the question Mr. Wilson said nothing new; there is nothing new to say. He made a new fact by shattering once and for all the tradition of American isolation.