Reviewed by H.W. Brands
Sunday, June 11, 2006
WOODROW WILSON'S RIGHT HAND
The Life of Colonel Edward M. House
By Godfrey Hodgson
Yale Univ. 335 pp. $35
Before Karl Rove, there was Edward M. House. Just as Rove, more than anyone else, made George W. Bush president and has served as his closest political adviser, so House -- the most intriguing of the president-makers and White House consiglieres -- stood behind Woodrow Wilson. And sometimes in front of Wilson: Unlike Rove, House had a large role in American foreign policy, which ultimately led to his downfall.
House was a wealthy Texan who took an interest in the politics of the Lone Star State during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Unwilling to subject himself to the bare-knuckled bruising of the democratic arena, he backed less diffident sorts, including Gov. Jim Hogg, who repaid House's assistance by bestowing upon him the title of colonel. Success inspired House to seek a larger stage, and as the Republican Party split in two under William Howard Taft, House attached himself to Wilson, the Princeton professor who in 1910 turned from political theory to political practice and won the governorship of New Jersey.
Godfrey Hodgson, the author of a biography of Henry L. Stimson, devotes relatively little space to House's pre-Wilson background in this intriguing new biography. This is just as well, since Texan and Southern politics during the Populist and Progressive Eras defy easy explanation. Hodgson gets most of the story right, although he understates the fundamental structural barrier that any Southern candidate for the presidency faced between the first Reconstruction (of the 1860s) and the second (of the 1960s): Political advancement in the South required pandering to the institutionalized racism that set the region defiantly apart, but such pandering effectively disqualified a candidate for national office. Wilson's Northern associations -- his parents were from Ohio, and he lived in the North nearly all his adult life -- allowed him to be the first Southerner to break the implicit embargo.
The heart of Hodgson's story is the remarkable relationship between Wilson and House during the first six years of Wilson's presidency. Wilson came to Washington with few friends or allies. The lack of friends resulted from Wilson's aloof, self-righteous personality; the lack of allies reflected the Democrats' 16-year exile from the White House. House offered to be both a friend and an ally, and he asked nothing in return except the chance to further the national interest -- and that only indirectly, through Wilson. Influence, rather than power, was enough for House. "Never before have I found both the man and the opportunity," he wrote his brother-in-law. Now he had both.
For Wilson, the proximity of House's disinterested intelligence was invaluable. "Mr. House is my second personality," the president explained. "He is my independent self. His thoughts and mine are one." (Hodgson likes this quote so much he repeats it, word for word, three pages later -- which, whatever it reveals about the Wilson-House relationship, says a lot about copy-editing these days.)
Hodgson accords House too much credit for some of the major domestic accomplishments of the Wilson administration: tariff reform, antitrust legislation and the creation of the Federal Reserve system. But he accurately depicts Wilson's reliance on House as an unofficial envoy to Europe during the period between the outbreak of World War I in 1914 and the intervention by the United States in 1917. Sooner than Wilson, House concluded that the United States must enter the conflict to prevent a German victory. Wilson resisted House's subtle pressure -- as well as stronger pushes toward war from Secretary of State Robert Lansing and outside hawks such as Theodore Roosevelt -- long enough to win reelection in 1916. But shortly thereafter the German government began sinking American ships, and the president saw no alternative to war.
Though neither House nor Wilson realized it at the time, the 1917 decision to fight, which seemed to bring the two men closer together, in fact sowed the seeds of their estrangement. It didn't help that Wilson, after the death of his first wife, had married again; Edith Wilson, wishing to be her husband's policy confidante as well as his personal intimate, saw House as a threat on both counts. Yet even if the new first lady had not started elbowing House away, the difference between the two men's worldviews would have become apparent as the administration laid plans for the postwar settlement. Wilson was a visionary radical, convinced that war itself could be abolished by internationalizing the use of legitimate force in the hands of a League of Nations. House was a pragmatic incrementalist, believing that the world wouldn't be saved at the stroke of a pen but could be improved by the enlightened balancing of various national interests.
This difference grew undeniable amid the Paris peace conference of 1919, when Wilson briefly went home to tend to domestic affairs and left House to negotiate in his place. The president was shocked on his return to discover what House had bargained away to the British and French, who had insisted on a punitive peace against Germany and a free hand in much of the colonial world. Or at least Wilson professed to be shocked; Hodgson mildly misreads the president's character, failing to credit him with sufficient guile to blame House for the concessions that Wilson knew, deep down, he himself would have had to yield to his European allies in exchange for his beloved League of Nations. Through much of their relationship, House seemed the shrewder, more calculating one, but at the crucial moment, it was Wilson who cut House off with hardly a backward glance.
Hodgson is entitled to sympathize with House, but he sometimes tries too hard to make House the unappreciated hero of the Wilson administration. More is at stake in this interpretation than history. Hodgson's preface describes the administration of George W. Bush as "unmistakably Wilsonian" in its attempt to spread democracy abroad. Hodgson returns to the present, albeit obliquely, at the end of the book, where he asserts that Americans would have been better off had they resisted Wilson's idealism and heeded House's pragmatism -- had they realized, in Hodgson's words, that American interests "could be best achieved not by boasting about the exceptional virtue of American society, but by finding partners in other societies who would work toward the same goals." Karl Rove, take note. ·
H.W. Brands teaches history at the University of Texas at Austin. His books include "Lone Star Nation" and "Woodrow Wilson."