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September 27, 2013 10:35 AM Standing and Falling

By Ed Kilgore

At a time when activists in both political parties—and observers in both the MSM and the blogosphere—are often tempted to treat “fighting” qualities as the only attributes worth having in politics, it’s important to remember that “standing on principle” or “hanging tough” can most definitely be taken too far. We’re seeing that right now in the willingness of congressional conservatives to take destructive and even self-destructive actions to the brink in a fanatlcal effort to disable the Affordable Care Act of 2010. But as Michael O’Donnell points out in his review (in the September/October issue of the Washington Monthly) of A. Scott Berg’s new biography of Woodrow Wilson, even great political figures have defeated themselves with righteous obstinacy.

Historians have varied in their assessments of Wilson (particularly since his virulent racism has received greater attention) and his record at home and abroad. But few writers or readers have failed to be captivated by his fight for the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations, and the failure that left him a broken man as much as the stroke which disabled him in the final months of his presidency:

[A] principled politician can resemble a stampeding elephant: nothing will stand in his way, and eventually he ends up lost with two broken tusks. Wilson ran himself ragged in support of the treaty, and died bewildered and angry that all had gone wrong. Professor Joseph Nye recently observed that Wilson’s presidency resembles George W. Bush’s: high moralism, big risks, more vision than execution. And Wilson’s stubborn insistence on establishing the League at Versailles echoes Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s push to streamline the military during the Iraq War. Others disagreed, circumstances changed, it wasn’t the right time—but the secretary forged on. Moreover, Wilson’s utter refusal to compromise over the Versailles Treaty sounds like nothing in politics today so much as Tea Party intransigence. That Wilson was debilitated by illness during the last phase of the treaty debate is some excuse, but he showed little flexibility even while he was well.

The other vice Wilson exhibited that sounds familiar today is a self-righteousness bordering on megalomania:

Consider Wilson’s comments to William McCombs, the chairman of his campaign committee, on election night in 1912. “Before we proceed, I wish it clearly understood that I owe you nothing. God ordained that I should be the next president of the United States. Neither you nor any other mortal could have prevented that.”

Spoken like a true “constitutional conservative,” which is ironic since many Tea Folk have followed Glenn Beck in treating Wilson as the Father of Lies, and of the modern American Left.

In any event, O’Donnell is right that Wilson provides a cautionary tale for the politically inflexible:

Wilson is the president who stood and stood until he fell down on his face. Sometimes a politician needs to compromise.
Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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