Advanced Search
August Heckscher
August Heckscher
Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
ISBN: 0945707266
Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
Mr. Heckscher, author of Woodrow Wilson: A Biography, discussed the life of the 28th president of the United States. He described President Wilson's eight-year tenure as president of Princeton University, his governorship of New Jersey, and his two terms as U.S. president. His book was published by Charles Scribner's Sons. Mr. Heckscher is former president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation.
Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
Program Air Date: January 12, 1992

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: August Heckscher, author of "Woodrow Wilson: A Biography." In the middle of your book on Page 275 under the title The Wilson White House, you have this line: `More than most men in the office, Wilson continued to live a vital and sometimes tormented private existence.' What was his tormented private existence?
AUGUST HECKSCHER, AUTHOR, "WOODROW WILSON: A BIOGRAPHY Well, Wilson suffered in the first two years of his presidency the great disaster of his wife's death. She died in August 1914, almost the same day as World War I broke out, and Wilson was caught in that vortex of events, and at the same time in a private sorrow which caused him a deep depression for several months. Then to go on, he met, of course, about eight or nine months later Edith Bolling Galt, with whom he immediately fell in love. It's often said that men who have had happy marriages the first time are very anxious to get married again, and that seems to have been true with Wilson. He carried on a passionate courtship with Mrs. Galt, married her about 16 months after his first wife's death and went on then into a very happy period.
LAMB: Because it's so interesting and it's a little bit ahead of the game, can you tell the story of how they met and how they eventually got married? His second wife.
HECKSCHER: Yes. Well, as I tell it in my book, Wilson was just beginning to emerge from this deep depression. He loved to motor around Washington way out into the country, and so one day as he was passing DuPont Circle, he said to his private physician, who usually was with him and was a good companion as well as a good doctor, `Who is that beautiful woman that I see walking down the street?' Well, by an extraordinary coincidence, it was a woman whom the doctor, Cary Grayson, knew well; and that in a strange way was the beginning. But it was only afterwards that she came by chance to the White House as a friend of the of the president's niece who was taking the place of the first lady. And what happened there was that they'd come in from walking in the rain in the little White House elevator and the door opened and there was the president of the United States, so Wilson has his first real glimpse of his future wife in that way, wearing muddy shoes, as she said.
LAMB: One of the interesting things was that as he courted her and they got finally to marriage, a lot of stuff went on in letters.
HECKSCHER: Oh, yes. Of course, Wilson was a great letter writer, and one of the advantages and virtues of this book is that it is based on an enormous documentation springing from Wilson's personal life, from his letters to friends, letters to family and so on. But these courtship letters to Mrs. Galt show a president so preoccupied by wooing this beautiful woman that sometimes you wonder how he had time to carry on the business of the nation at all. He would get up early and write her a three or four page letter and he'd very often write her again. Ike Hoover, the secretary…What do they call it? The majordomo of the White House was in on the thing very early. He would see that those letters were taken out and put in some post box where they would not attract the attention of the press or the White House staff.
LAMB: You write here, `In her autobiography she tells how she was shocked by what seemed a breach of normal decorum in the president's suggesting marriage after so brief an acquaintance. Nevertheless, in returning home that night she wrote him proudly, "I am a woman, and the thought that you have need of me is sweet."'
HECKSCHER: I mean, it's wonderful. It's wonderful. Well, she was a Southerner and she had great pride. She had emerged from an unhappy first marriage. Her first husband had died. She was living in Washington, a jaunty figure, the head of the Galt Jewelry & Silver Company. First woman in Washington, she prided herself on saying, to drive a car, an electric car, and a woman who paid great attention to her looks and her style. I think she was indeed the first first lady who later on the crowds noticed because of what she wore, because of her Paris gowns and things of that sort. So that very first quotation which you give there is very characteristic of her. What is it again? `I am a...'
LAMB: `I am a woman, and the thought...'
HECKSCHER: `...woman.' `I am a woman.'
LAMB: `...that you have need of me is sweet.'
HECKSCHER: Yeah, that's right.
LAMB: And then she goes on to say, `You have been honest with me and perhaps I was too frank with you,' in other words, turning him down.
HECKSCHER: Turning him down. Well, what had happened was he had, after that first meeting when she emerged from the elevator in her muddy boots, he had invited her to dinner at the White House several times and she'd come with members of the family. And then one night in May, they went out on the porch of the White House and the other families tactfully withdrew, and there Wilson proposed to her and she turned him down. But that night, as you say, wrote the letter which you quote.
LAMB: I've got to read one more, the letter that he wrote back to her the following day, and I just wondered how often in your research this kind of prose you found. `Here stands your friend, a longing man in the midst of world affairs, a world that knows nothing of the heart he has shown you and which would as leaf break it as not. Will you come to him sometime without reserve and make his strength complete?' Did he write that way often?
HECKSCHER: Oh, yes. Well, of course, Wilson was a very fascinating writer. The very word which, if I may say so, you stumbled over, `the world would as leaf' tear his heart apart is very characteristic of Wilson. `And here stands a longing man' and so on, that's also characteristic of him. These letters between Woodrow Wilson and Mrs. Galt in the courtship phase are great literary love letters. But the letters to Wilson's first wife, whom he had married in the '90s, are also extraordinarily frank and romantic in every sense.
LAMB: Oh, and I think I've got a picture here that would help. Is that Ellen?
HECKSCHER: That's Ellen Axson Wilson, his first wife, whom every biographer falls in love with because she was so humorous and so delightful, so modest and yet so proud, too.
LAMB: When was Woodrow Wilson president?
HECKSCHER: He was first elected in 1912 and then elected again in 1916. So it ran from 1912 to 1920. In the last 17 months of his second term, he was, as the world knows now, felled by a stroke which disabled him for about two months totally and then left him a cripple for the rest of his life.
LAMB: This is the first book on Woodrow Wilson in 30 years?
HECKSCHER: Yes, it's the first. Well, no, that wouldn't be fair to say, because every aspect of Woodrow Wilson has been written about in these past years-his mistress, his first wife, his second wife, his foreign policy, his domestic policy all aspects of this man, who was so varied in his accomplishments and distinguished himself in so many fields. Education is something which we, for example, haven't even mentioned until now. But this is the first time that all this, plus the new material that has been gathered together in Princeton, has been brought together in a biography.
LAMB: And why you?
HECKSCHER: Well, I've been interested in Wilson for a long time. When I was a boy of about 14 at school, I read a biography by William Allen White, the great newspaper man of Emporia, Kansas, called "Woodrow Wilson: The Man, His World and His Work," and one is captivated often at that age, at 14, by something, and that captivated me. Made me want to be a Democrat when all my family were Republicans. Made me want to be a college teacher. Made me want to play some role in public life and so on. So I had followed Wilson through reading about him, but it was my publisher about 10 years ago, Charles Scribner, who said to me, `What we really need is a good, modern, one volume life of Wilson based on all the sources.' And I was in a very good position to do it, not because of any talent of mine, but because I was on the editorial board of the of the Wilson papers, which have now been collected in 68 volumes. And there will be one or two additional ones before the series is finally finished. Sixty eight volumes of about 750 pages each. And in addition to that, of course, all the secondary sources which are not included. So I had a large field to work in and it happened that at that moment I had the time to work, so I set myself to it.
LAMB: What were you doing other than this during the time that you were trying to put all this together?
HECKSCHER: Well, I was leading a reasonably busy life. In the summer, I am a printer. I have a private press of my own and I did several small books during that period working with young people. I did some additional writing, articles and so on. I was the chairman of various boards and organizations and so on. But I worked very hard. I lived at Princeton for two or three winters burying myself in the library there, always with the encouragement of the man who himself was editing these papers. The editor in chief is Arthur Link, the great Wilsonian of our generation who himself has written five volumes of Wilson biography. And with his encouragement, we plowed ahead, going through the papers one by one, often discovering things. He would say to me, `Auggie, this will blow your mind,' as some new evidence came to the fore that nobody had had previously.
LAMB: Where's this painting come from on the book cover?
HECKSCHER: Well, that's an interesting painting and an interesting question. I chose it but first let me tell you where it comes from. It hangs in the White House now. It is the Sir William Orpen portrait of Woodrow Wilson painted in Paris while the peace treaty was being framed, and he was a great portrait painter, as I think that shows. Extraordinary vigor in his brush and in his style. But I liked it on the cover of the book because it shows something that I want to show throughout. We're not dealing just with a pompous, traditional sort of politician with his top hat, as you so often see Wilson portrayed, rather a handsome man in a frock coat and all that, seeming to belong to a past age. You're dealing there with a modern man, a perplexed modern man, a complex man, but one who really belongs to our age.
LAMB: Where is your home originally?
HECKSCHER: My home is New York City. I was born in New York. I've lived there nearly all my life.
LAMB: Where'd you go to school?
HECKSCHER: Well, I went to school at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire. That's where I read my first biography of Wilson. I then went on to Yale and graduated from there. Got a degree at Harvard and then got into various sorts of trouble, among them being president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation during the centennial year of Wilson's birth, 1956.
LAMB: What'd you study at Yale?
HECKSCHER: I was a major in political science. And that's another thing. I think I owe that to the fact that as a young lad, I had been captivated by Wilson and his writings on government, his teaching of politics, so I majored in political science and government.
LAMB: What about at Harvard?
HECKSCHER: At Harvard I got my MA in political science, too.
LAMB: Have you written other books?
HECKSCHER: Oh, yes. I've written other books as I went along. I wrote a biography of La Guardia, or at least a study of La Guardia during the years he was mayor of New York, because I myself had been very active in New York City affairs and wanted to see how this paragon had done in his own day. I'd never met La Guardia, though I, of course, lived through the excitement which he created. I had been park commissioner of New York, so I wrote a book called "Alive in the City: A Memoir of an Ex commissioner," which describes some of my adventures in that rather lively post. It was certainly lively at that time in the midst of the Vietnam War, the liberation movements of various kinds, women's rights, gay rights and so on. Every protest, every excitement seemed to want to be reflected in the parks of New York and if possible in Central Park. So I was involved in all that. So I wrote on the book, I wrote a memoir, and then I did a study of parks throughout the great cities of the United States. I called that "Open Spaces: The Life of American Cities." So those are books that I wrote and others went along.
LAMB: The greatest contribution, in your opinion, that Woodrow Wilson gave to this country, or the world?
HECKSCHER: Well, the greatest contribution was perhaps the vision which tragically was not realized, and it is a vision which is very much alive today and which we are still trying to fulfill: a world made up of democratic states, free states as we tend to call them today, self governing, brought together under an overarching international organization which would preserve peace, and engaging in free trade, maintaining human rights, disarmed because they didn't need it, and so on. And today that vision still is very much with us.
LAMB: The time in his life where he was the most vibrant?
HECKSCHER: Well, I think, of course, as a young man making his way, it's always the interesting part of any biography, I think. And Wilson was a prodigious worker and very fascinating in his youth; lively, spirited, witty. He was voted year after year the most popular member of the faculty at Princeton University, and so on. So you love all that. But the most fascinating period in some ways is when he left the university and stepped out into the world of politics in 1910. For two years he was governor of New Jersey and in 1912 he was elected president of the United States, so it was a meteoric career. And he emerged on the political scene with enormous vitality, with great eloquence, striking a new note with humor, modesty where otherwise there had been bombast and exaggeration. Very much really the impression that Adlai Stevenson created when he came into Democratic politics in 1952.
LAMB: Was he a good speaker?
HECKSCHER: Oh, yes. That's something not fully realized because Wilson was in some ways a quiet, undramatic man. But he was a great orator. He had trained as a youth trained himself in public speaking, had practiced debating, had become a very accomplished public speaker by the time he was in his 30s and 40s. But he had something very special. The kind of eloquence which he developed and then practiced was an eloquence that was very intimate and very quiet. It was not based on the popular orator reaching the great mass. It was based on the parliamentary example from England where wit, persuasiveness, logic, the capacity to address men almost personally all played their part. And Wilson was able, interestingly enough, to keep that sense of intimacy and directness in his speech even when he addressed great crowds. And they were great crowds. In those days he and other candidates for the presidency, for example, would speak to audiences reaching 35,000 people without any amplification of the human voice whatsoever. He had a voice which seemed relaxed, seemed easy and yet sailed out there and could reach the people at the edge of the crowd.
LAMB: You suggested, I think, somewhere that he preferred or suggested that we change to the parliamentary form of government?
HECKSCHER: Well, yes. As a young man he was captivated, as I say, by the way the parliamentary government worked and he was discouraged by the way our Congress worked where everything was done in committee, where nothing was aired in debate. So he did propose, when he was an undergraduate senior at Princeton, a Cabinet government for the United States in which, at the very least, the members of the president's Cabinet would appear before the Congress regularly to be questioned and so on. And later on he realized that that was not the solution for America, but he always kept some feeling of being himself a prime minister, of somebody who was leading very directly the Congress. It was not the separation of powers, if you will. The executive at one end and the legislature at the other was not what he taught and not what he lived. He really saw a very close merging of powers and he thought of himself as the chief legislator as well as the chief executive and party leader in the country.
LAMB: When he was president, what were the two legislative bodies? What parties? House and Senate?
HECKSCHER: The Democrats had taken over the House in 1910 and they also controlled the Senate, so he came in with his own party which, of course, was what he wanted and fitted in with his image of the parliamentary system. But in 1918, the elections went against Wilson and he had a hostile Senate which he could never really find himself in regard to. He could never really persuade it; he could never really work closely with it and so on. Wilson, for example, re established a principle dead since almost the founding of the republic, where the president goes down to the Congress and delivers the message himself. Now that had never been done. They sent messages down which were read by the clerk which were very long and very dull. Wilson appeared. It was an absolutely, unbelievably dramatic thing. He had an office in the White House which hadn't been used since Lincoln's days, and he would go down there and consult with the members of his own party and members of the opposition party, too, when he was promoting legislation. So it was really a very dramatic moment in American government. He himself had written that the president has the great power of standing alone for all the people. The Senate and the House were elected by particular constituencies. The president was elected by all the people and he had to speak for the whole people so far as he could, and insofar as he did speak for them, Wilson wrote, he is invincible.
LAMB: In 1912 and in 1916, who were his running mates and who did he run against?
HECKSCHER: Well, those were interesting elections, both of them. In 1912, the Republican Party was split. Taft and Roosevelt had broken an old friendship and an old political association. Franklin and Teddy Roosevelt headed the Bull Moose Party, and Taft headed the regular Republican Party.
LAMB: William Howard Taft.
HECKSCHER: William Howard Taft who had been president for four years. That was 1916. And Wilson had the immense advantage of being able to deal with the situation where the Republicans were divided. 1916 was much more difficult because the Democrats had always been a minority party and he had to deal with a united Republican Party. That Republican Party was led by Charles Evans Hughes, who was an extraordinary man and in some ways a very strong candidate, had been expected to be highly successful. He had been governor of New York for two terms, almost as dramatic as Wilson's two terms, one term in New Jersey. But the unfortunate thing, he was sitting on the Supreme Court. Well, they got him off the Supreme Court and they made him head the Republican ticket. It was quite a battle. Wilson had the advantage and sometimes the disadvantage of having been in office for four years. The incumbent always has an advantage. But he had more than that, he had the advantage of addressing the people in a way which Hughes could never attain to. Hughes was a lawyer. Hughes thought that the president should be a chief administrator and nothing else, and not a legislative leader and not a man of vision and so on. And in terms of reaching the people in that election of 1916, Wilson clearly had the upper hand. It was a close election in the end, as everybody remembers. It was a question for several days whether Hughes or Wilson had won, but in the end Wilson carried California and that...
LAMB: Who was his vice president both '12 and in '16?
HECKSCHER: Well, that's a fascinating thing, too, because Wilson, who had studied American government so carefully, we never had a president who knew American history and government better than he, or as well, I guess. He had written the history of the United States in five or six volumes, among other things. He should have known that the vice president is an important figure, even though he doesn't play a part in day to day affairs. But Wilson allowed Thomas Marshall, who had been governor of Indiana, to be made vice president in 1912. He didn't know it at the time when he assented to Marshall, but it had been a deal on the floor of the 1912 convention where the Indiana delegation came over to Wilson at just a propitious time, they'd gone --I don't know, 30 or 40 ballots and they desperately needed to bring the thing to a head. But Marshall turned out to be a man hostile to Wilson's domestic reform program, totally at odds with Wilson on international affairs, a strange man, something of a Hoosier wit. He's remembered in American history as the man who said, `What this country needs is a good 5 cent cigar,' and yet the man was attractive in many ways. When Wilson was ill, he never tried to usurp power. He said, `They're not paying me any extra money and I don't see why I should assume any of the powers of the presidency,' and so on.
LAMB: By the way, that's often quoted. What did he mean by that, the 5 cent cigar?
HECKSCHER: Well, I must say I've never done any research, but I guess that, like everything else, there had once been good cigars at 5 cents and they were probably going up, and he smoked cigars himself, and I guess he thought that tobacco was a benign philosophical route which everybody should partake of.
LAMB: Speaking of Thomas Riley Marshall, the vice president of the United States, by the way, he was with him both terms?
HECKSCHER: Yes, both terms. That's the extraordinary thing.
LAMB: You write this on Page 614. `The three persons in direct charge of the president, his wife, his doctor and his secretary, realized that the vice president at least would have to be informed of the true situation.' Now this was when he had a stroke.
HECKSCHER: Yes. Very severe stroke.
LAMB: And at what point did he have the severe stroke?
HECKSCHER: It was in September of 1919.
LAMB: And at what point in his term was that near the end?
HECKSCHER: It was 17 months before the end of the term.
LAMB: Where was he when he had the stroke?
HECKSCHER: He'd come back from the Western tour which had been shortened because there were very alarming symptoms. He was a very ill man. But he came back to Washington, walked from his railroad car to a waiting car, rode to the White House, and two nights later he suffered this very severe stroke.
LAMB: This is what is in...
HECKSCHER: Yes, you're going to go back. Three people.
LAMB: Yeah, but this is what is in context of today...
LAMB: ...which is hard to believe. You write, `They chose for their purpose the Washington correspondent of the Baltimore Sun, J. Fred Essery, who, taking great pains to avoid attention, went to Marshall's office. Briefly he told Marshall why he had come and who had sent him.' Why had he come and who had sent him? This is the correspondent for the Baltimore Sun...
LAMB: ...going to the vice president after the stroke.
HECKSCHER: Oh, yeah. Uh huh.
LAMB: To tell him?
HECKSCHER: To tell him, yes. You see, he, Marshall, didn't know and the country as a whole didn't know that Wilson had suffered a severe stroke. The bulletins that were issued emphasized the fact that he was exhausted, that it was a sort of nervous breakdown, and that he would be able to carry on. But what Essery had to tell Marshall was that Wilson might die at any moment. They believed, indeed, that his life hung by a thread.
LAMB: What kind of a situation was it that a Baltimore Sun reporter would tell the vice president the president was sick?
HECKSCHER: Well, the whole situation was really very strange. It does seem odd that Tumulte himself might not have gone, but Tumulte didn't want to take the responsibility of indicating beyond the White House circle, the inner White House circle, what the truth was.
LAMB: This is a picture of Tumulte?
HECKSCHER: Yeah, that's Tumulte in the background there with Wilson. Tumulte was an Irishman, Catholic, Wilson's political adviser, his secretary for all those years, and he didn't want to take the responsibility of telling anybody. Nobody did. So they conceived this plan of getting a third party to convey the message. And that passage continues that when Marshall realized that Wilson might die at any moment, he just put his head down on his arms and rested it on the desk, just absolutely stricken by the sense of responsibility that might come to him.
LAMB: Just...
HECKSCHER: He didn't want it. He absolutely didn't desire it.
LAMB: There's a lot we can talk about with Woodrow Wilson. You've got a book full of it here. Let's pursue this period in time during those 17 months. What was it like in this country?
HECKSCHER: Well, the three people who were close to the president and who, if you will, carried on the affairs of government, we have to be a little careful, but roughly the three people were Mrs. Wilson, his secretary Tumulte and his doctor, Cary Grayson. Now the question is: Did they run the country or did, more particularly is usually asked, did Mrs. Wilson run the country? The president was totally disabled by this stroke for a period of about two months. Then he was in a wheelchair and then he learned very slowly that following spring to walk painfully and to mount one step at a time. But he really remained a cripple through the rest of his life. I see a picture over there showing Wilson as he set out on the Western tour, and Wilson as he returned was a stricken man who returned, never, never to make a speech, for example, again, except for brief speeches after he'd retired. So anyway, here were these three people. Did Mrs. Wilson run the government? Well, my answer to that usually is the government didn't run during these 17 months. The departments carried on their work, the annual message was pieced together largely by Tumulte from reports which were made by the Cabinet members to the White House. A few people were allowed to see the president after the acute phase of his illness had passed, but it was a period when nothing was initiated, nothing new was undertaken. The country was turning away from the war back to private business and was much more concerned, as a matter of fact, with making money than with political innovation or political leadership. So the country really drifted during that period.
LAMB: First of all, what was the media atmosphere like then? What was available? Radio?
HECKSCHER: Oh, well, no. Radio was not available, and, of course, not television. Radio only became available at the very end of Wilson's life, about two months before he died, he did an Armistice Day address on radio that reached out to people. And I want to go back, if you do, to the story.
LAMB: Sure.
HECKSCHER: But it is very fascinating that here was a man of such great persuasive powers, so passionately eager to be in touch with the people, to lead them, to know what they were thinking in turn, and so on; and yet he was denied the instrument which could have served him so well until he was too old and too sick to make any real use of it at all, that is radio.
LAMB: What I was getting at is in that atmosphere during those 17 months, were there stories out that Mrs. Wilson was running the country then?
HECKSCHER: Oh, yes. Well, in the Congress they would joke and say, `Another bill has come down from Tumulte' and so on, and they would examine the signatures on bills and proclamations to see whether they were Wilson's. Sometimes they were not. They were a rubber stamp. And that was in the Congress. In the country as a whole, of course, the word got out that the president was seriously ill, and after several months, diplomats went to see him to present their credentials and so on, and would write home to their own governments about the pathetic spectacle which occurred where once an intensely vibrant man, a giant, if you will, had been, there was just this bent, stricken figure often wearing a kind of baseball cap that came down over his eyes, often with a shawl over his shoulders, often unshaven and so on. It was a tragic thing.
LAMB: When was this picture taken?
HECKSCHER: That was taken I think when he was in the S Street house after his retirement.
LAMB: And S Street house is a place that we happened to have had our cameras to do a series of interviews before, and so we talked a little bit about it when we were there. S Street meaning in Washington, DC, where he lived after he was president?
HECKSCHER: That's right, yeah. He retired with Mrs. Wilson. It was a very handsome house on S Street, and there he lived out four years from where he died in 1924. And there he stands at the right in the doorway of S Street. But you see what a pathetic figure he is. The top hat is still there, but his left side is paralyzed.
LAMB: And we want to return to that radio address that he made before he died.
HECKSCHER: Well, it was a pathetic address. He always said he didn't like any contraptions. There were beginning to be, on his last Western tour, some crude form of microphone which would make it possible for him to reach these huge audiences, and he always said he didn't like to speak into those. So when radio came along, he was highly suspicious of the thing, and he insisted on standing up in the middle of his library there at S Street, but when he stood there he really couldn't read the pages that he had so painfully written out and corrected. Mrs. Wilson was there and would prompt him when he faltered, and yet the great American public didn't really notice that at all at the time. The letters that came to the S Street house after that Armistice Day address were all on the theme, `I heard you. I heard you very clearly.' The miracle of hearing anything was so great that the pathetic quality of the speech itself was not remarked on.
LAMB: Let's go back to the beginning. He was born where?
HECKSCHER: He was born in Staunton, Virginia, in 1856. 1856, interestingly enough, is just 30 years after John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died. I mean, how short our history is when you think of it. And he was born a Southerner in Virginia. He lived all his youth in the South. His father was a very distinguished clergyman and himself a great preacher who inspired the son to the sort of concept of oratory, which he did pursue. He lived in Augusta, Georgia, during the Civil War where his father had a big Presbyterian church. He lived in Columbia, South Carolina, during his teen age; he lived in Wilmington, North Carolina, at least the family did, while he was mostly at Princeton. And then he married a girl from Rome, Georgia. So he was about as Southern in his upbringing as you might think. And yet Wilson was, in all his early writings and all his thinking, was a nationalist. I mean, he believed the Civil War was over, which a great many people at that time doubted. In one famous debate when he was a student at the university, a law student at the University of Virginia, he said in effect, `Now I will tell you something that will shock you. I am glad that the South lost the Civil War,' because he then went on to picture very eloquently the stricken union, the broken nation, the disadvantage the South would have been at in terms of manufacturers and so on. So from the beginning he rose above the South. He never had a Southern accent, for example. And it's often asked -and while we're on this question of the South whether his problems with civil rights, when he became president in 1912 13, did not have their source and their roots in the fact that he was a Southerner with a Southerner's prejudice. But I discuss that at great length, and I think there were other reasons. Wilson himself was very liberal in the deepest sense. He was absolutely non sectarian in his views. He appointed the first Jew to the Supreme Court of New Jersey. He appointed the first Jew to the United States Supreme Court. He made a Catholic his private secretary and so on. And the blacks, he recognized as a race that needed help and education if they were going to play their part in the national life.
LAMB: Went to Princeton and studied what?
HECKSCHER: Political science.
LAMB: How far did he go in his education?
HECKSCHER: Well, then he went on. After he left Princeton, he had decided to study law and he went to the University of Virginia to study law, but he left the law school after about two years and then went to Johns Hopkins where he got his PhD, doctor of philosophy, in political science.
LAMB: Then what did he do?
HECKSCHER: Then he went into teaching, and he was at Bryn Mawr, which was a Quaker college, on the first day of that great experiment. It was to be a college stressing women's rights. It had an extraordinary dean, a militant dean on the feminist side, which Wilson always found a little difficult to adapt to, but he taught the young women of that day with great deference and with great skill. But he...
LAMB: How long was he there and then where'd he go from Bryn Mawr?
HECKSCHER: I think he was three years at Bryn Mawr, and then he began to long to move on. There were things that he felt were constraining, including the fact that he only had young women as his students, and he got an appointment at Wesleyan University, Wesleyan College as it was then, and had tremendous success with the students, became a prophet in the field of baseball. He coached the team. He established a parliamentary sort of club or debating society there which had great success. He was adored by the undergraduates and so on. This man was restless, as one can imagine. He had a long way to go, promises to keep, and he had dreamed for a long time of going back to Princeton to teach political science, and the chance came to do that about two years after he was at Wesleyan, and that was...
LAMB: How old was he when he got back to Princeton?
HECKSCHER: Well, I suppose he was about 32.
LAMB: How did he get to become president of the university?
HECKSCHER: Well, he was outstanding from the beginning. It was not only that, as a teacher, he filled his classrooms. They sat on the windowsill and cheered him when he was through, more or less. That's the legend. But that he was a writer who was reaching a very wide audience. He was a lecturer who was out on the hustings almost everywhere in the United States, and he was a natural leader, above all, wherever he was and whatever position he was placed. He saw the big issues and he went after them. So he was playing a leading role among a sort of dissident faction of the Princeton faculty. He was looked to as the young Turk, and when the president, Patton, who was not very efficient or effective, was persuaded to resign, Wilson was elected immediately by the board of trustees.
LAMB: How old was he?
HECKSCHER: Well, you ask me these ages without knowing my mathematics are not so good. But he must have been about 42, I would think, at that time.
LAMB: How long was he president of Princeton and when did he become governor?
HECKSCHER: He was president of Princeton for eight years, and he became governor in 1910.
LAMB: How did he distinguish himself when he was president of Princeton?
HECKSCHER: Well, I mean, here again, the picture of the man has to be seen his extraordinary dynamism, his great eloquence, his capacity to see himself, even at Princeton he said, `I consider myself a sort of prime minister,' and he went out to the alumni and also made public addresses all over the country, touched the constituency which he felt could enliven Princeton back home. But his great contributions were reorganizing the curriculum, changing the courses so as to modernize them, changing the teaching methods, introducing what he called preceptors who worked closely with the students instead of just lecturing them from a platform. And then his great vision, but his great failure, was in introducing what he called a quad plan, which was breaking up this somewhat amorphous college where the students didn't know each other so well anymore and where they were distracted by extracurricular affairs and living off the campus and so on, by organizing separate colleges which later Harvard took up in the house plan in the college plan house plan, and Yale took up in the college plan. And today, after all these years, Princeton has gone back to the idea which Wilson first sketched.
LAMB: Who recognized his political talent? Another way to ask the question: How did he get to be governor?
HECKSCHER: Well, I guess the lightning sort of played around him. By that time it wasn't too difficult to see that he might be a man who would leave the academic world. But there was one particular man who played a major role or two, I would say. George Harvey was the editor of Harper's Weekly, who was looking for a candidate whom he could promote and saw Wilson, proposed him at a famous speech in the Lotus Club of New York as the next president of the United States and so on. There was "Boss" Smith of New Jersey who was looking around for somebody whom he could promote and through which he could build up his own fortunes and political fortunes in the state. And he played a very important part in promoting Wilson.
LAMB: What year was he governor and how long was he governor?
HECKSCHER: Wilson was elected governor in the fall of 1910 November 1910, and he resigned from the governorship when he was elected president in 1912.
LAMB: Was it his idea to run for president or was it somebody else's?
HECKSCHER: Well, he would have said it was not his idea and it was not somebody else's, it was the idea of providence. Wilson was a profoundly religious man. He didn't impose his religion on others. He didn't refer in public addresses very often to the almighty, but he believed that the history of the world and even the fate of individuals was directed by providence, and although his faith taught him that you have to work hard to be sure that a good providence is fulfilled, he nevertheless believed that if providence were against you, you probably would not get to be president or get anywhere else. So it was not until he was convinced basically that he had a call, as the Presbyterians would have put it, and that he was prepared to make the run.
LAMB: One small thing, if I remember correctly, that after he was elected president in 19 would have been '11 or '12 '12 and then took office in 1913, I guess, in March...
HECKSCHER: That was right, March.
LAMB: ...that he took a month off and went to Bermuda.
HECKSCHER: No, no. He went to Bermuda after the election and before he was president.
LAMB: That's what I mean.
HECKSCHER: Yes, I'm sorry.
LAMB: But he took the month off. What I was getting at is that in today's age, if somebody took a month off and went to Bermuda, they'd have cameras there, they'd have not a moment of peace.
HECKSCHER: Well, he had some trouble. I mean, there were newspapermen who parked just outside the house, and he would call them in every day and prove to them that he had done nothing newsworthy. That was about the extent of his communicating. One man, who tried to penetrate the inner sanctum of the cottage where he was staying, Wilson threatened to thrash personally if he didn't get off and respect his privacy.
LAMB: Who had the power then in the media?
HECKSCHER: Well, of course, Hearst was playing a major role, always very strongly against Wilson. The New York Times was already a very strong paper.
LAMB: Did they endorse him?
HECKSCHER: They did later on, yes. Of course, now earlier they didn't endorse him before the nomination. The Springfield Republican was a very influential paper, and Baltimore...
LAMB: Springfield, Massachusetts.
HECKSCHER: The Baltimore Sun, and I don't think the Washington Post was as powerful as it is now.
LAMB: While he was president, you write about this man a lot, and he comes up often as an enemy.
HECKSCHER: He, well, always as an enemy really, excepting in the very beginning.
LAMB: Who is he?
HECKSCHER: That's Senator Lodge, Henry Cabot Lodge.
LAMB: The father of the Henry Cabot Lodge that we know in the last 25, 30 years?
HECKSCHER: Yes. Yes, indeed. Or was it the grandfather? I think he was the grandfather.
LAMB: Maybe the grandfather.
LAMB: Yeah.
HECKSCHER: You have to keep the generations straight. Henry Cabot Lodge was an implacable enemy of Wilson's. He was a Republican. He was a great friend of Theodore Roosevelt's, and they saw what to them was the absolute political disaster of having Wilson run for a third term and having a Democratic Party be perpetuated in power. And Lodge, there's no doubt about it, was absolutely determined at all costs to defeat Wilson humiliate Wilson personally and to defeat the international policy which he was proposing. Now am I supposed to look at that picture?
LAMB: You don't have to. I'm just showing...
LAMB: ...another picture of the former president.
HECKSCHER: I see it. But it's interesting because I notice that that's the picture, I think. Is it not? where Franklin Roosevelt appears in among the people just in front of the speaker's stand on the...
LAMB: We'll look down there and see if we can find him.
HECKSCHER: ...on your right hand, yes. Yes.
LAMB: Where do you see him?
HECKSCHER: Well, this is Franklin Roosevelt right here. He was at that time assistant secretary of the Navy, and that's Wilson, of course, speaking, accepting, I think, the nomination for the second term.
LAMB: Often Woodrow Wilson is cited as the man who said the real or I don't know what the exact quote is maybe you can tell us. The “50 percent of the job of the Congress is the informing responsibility.” Do you know that quote?
HECKSCHER: Well, it would have been more if you'll ex...
LAMB: I know it's inaccurate but...
HECKSCHER: If you'll excuse me, my good friend, Brian, it would have been more elegantly put than that.
LAMB: That's what I'm asking you. What did he really say?
HECKSCHER: And I don't think I could give you…
LAMB: And when did he say it?
HECKSCHER: I would massacre the quotation also. But he was convinced that all government is a matter of informing the people and keeping contact with the people, and then I don't remember the exact way in which he used it, but certainly he did feel that the if Congress didn't illuminate policy as well as make laws, it was not doing its job.
LAMB: When did he write his history of the United States?
HECKSCHER: He wrote that just before becoming president of Princeton, so that he had that great, not before becoming president, just while he was, well, just about there, when he was becoming president of Princeton. It was the last work he completed.
LAMB: You mentioned earlier he had two wives and a mistress. Where was the mistress?
HECKSCHER: Did I mention the mistress or did you?
LAMB: Yes. No, you did.
HECKSCHER: Well, Wilson had this long friendship with Mary Peck, who was a vivacious woman from the Midwest who had an unhappy marriage and was divorced from her husband. She used to go to Bermuda alone in the winter and establish a great house where all the notables of the island would gather Mark Twain and Woodrow Wilson and so on. But Wilson corresponded with her for many years, but during a brief period, the winter of 1909, it seems clear that he did have an actual affair with Mrs. Peck. I have documented it very closely and I think given very good evidence. And I have wanted to stress it because what is important about Wilson is that his inner life and his public life were closely related. This wasn't just the dalliance of a man on a holiday. This was a man moving from one career to another, from that of college president to politician, moving toward a great world fame, and really, as it were, going through a kind of turmoil of the spirit in which this affair played an important part.
LAMB: Did it ever become knowledgeable to either one of his wives?
HECKSCHER: We must assume that it became knowledgeable, known to his first wife, certainly. I mean, one never knows the details and we don't know them, but certainly he was very frank with her and their correspondence shows that she knew just about everything.
LAMB: This is a picture of Mary Peck.
HECKSCHER: Mary Peck, yes, there on the right. The second wife is very interesting because when Wilson was wooing Mrs. Galt, he was in the White House and she was on DuPont Circle, a report came out that his letters to Mary Peck were going to be published and that the affair would be made known to the whole country, and Wilson went to Mrs. Holbert, the first time he entered her house, and said, `Look, I come to you stained and unworthy, and there was this folly, this passage of folly in my earlier life.' So he certainly must have told her the details or much of the details as seemed necessary, and she accepted to carry on the courtship in spite of it.
LAMB: We only have five minutes left, and I can hear the viewers out there who are Woodrow Wilson fans saying, `You've gone this whole hour without asking about the League of Nations.' You probably have said the same thing, so in the remaining moments...
LAMB: ...tell us the story.
HECKSCHER: Well, the League of Nations became essential to Wilson as the horrible slaughters of World War I drew to an end. He saw it as the only means which would justify the great sacrifices that had been made by England and France and other countries, and indeed at the end by our own country, too. It would mean peace for the world in the future. It would redeem the horrors of the war and so on. So in Paris where the Treaty of Versailles was framed, he got the League of Nations at the top of the agenda, and he got the assembled nations to approve it and to commit themselves to it. So it was a great act of statesmanship on his part. As the peace conference went on, he more and more saw the League of Nations not only as a peacekeeping institution, but also as a kind of supreme parliament which was going to straighten out many of the mistakes which the statesmen of that time were being forced to engage in. Wilson believed that a better period in world opinion, a more sane and just opinion would develop and would reflect itself in the League of Nations, so that the flaws and the errors of the peace were going to be corrected by the League. So all that happened and then, of course, the League was defeated in the Senate and we never joined it. It went on in Europe and then lived between the two wars. So I don't think one ought to take away from Wilson the fact that he created the League. I mean, there were others, obviously, deeply involved, but his name and his fame are associated with that. But also one has to look at that terrible political defeat which left the United States on the outside.
LAMB: Was he bitter?
HECKSCHER: Oh, yes. He was terribly, terribly bitter in the end. Lodge and the Republicans in the Senate had proved absolutely unyielding, and Wilson himself, when the final struggle in the Senate came up, was a fallen man. He was a man not capable of making a public speech, not capable of negotiating. Really all he could do was lie there in his bed or sit there in his wheelchair and say no, and he rejected the compromises which were made, proposed to him by the Senate one after the other, and accused Lodge of trying to nullify the treaty and the League rather than to reform it. And finally, the whole thing was withdrawn and there was a complete wreckage . We never signed the Treaty of Versailles and we never joined the League.
LAMB: What's next for you and Woodrow Wilson?
HECKSCHER: Well, for me, I've got to go on and do some other things that I hope will be useful and interesting for myself and perhaps for others. Wilson is much more interesting and much more important. We are in a period where Wilson's ideas are again coming to the fore. Emerson said of John Brown, `We meet him wherever we turn,' and we begin to meet Wilson again wherever we turn. When President Bush talks about a New World order, he's talking really Wilsonian phrases. And when Bush turns to the United Nations to sanction his foreign policy, that's a Wilsonian course also. Whether we'll be able to achieve everything that Wilson strove is, I think, still very doubtful. It may need another half a century and it may even need more wars before we're able to get there. Wilson was, for example, struggled with the problem of a Russia in revolution, which we face again. He had the great problem of these countries in Eastern Europe, the old states of the Austria Hungarian empire and of the Ottoman Empire that had to be created in the form of democracies, so many of his problems still live with us, and he'll be there when we try to solve them.
LAMB: This is what the book looks like. August Heckscher is the author and it's "Woodrow Wilson: A Biography." Thank you very much.
HECKSCHER: Thank you, Brian.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 2004. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.