"What has President Carter to learn from Woodrow Wilson?" That question was posed by The Princeton Alumni Weekly to Arthur S. Link, who edits Wilson's papers. Link responded in an interview with William McCleery, which is excerpted here.
Q: Does Carter, in fact, resemble Wilson significantly?
A: Carter and Wilson are strikingly similar in many regards: both Southerners, both Christian idealists, both "good" men, decent, with great personal integrity, who want to do "the right thing," by which I mean what is best for the majority of the people. Carter is the most avowedly religious president since Wilson, though Franklin Roosevelt was deeply religious in his own, more private way. Truman, too, was religious, in the best sense of the term, though he didn't use the vocabulary and style of the pulpit as Wilson did and Carter does. Both Wilson and Carter can be called progressive democrats, very intelligent, with disciplined, organized brains.
But there I think the similarity ceases. Carter I would call a managerial type: He believes that all problems can be solved by intelligence. He was educated as an engineer, and he clearly believes that, when a difficult problem arises, you sit down and solve it. Carter is not widely read in history, political science, the social sciences, literature, the humanities, as Wilson was. The comparison is not entirely fair, though, because Wilson was the best-educated president we have ever had, except perhaps for Jefferson and Madison. . .
Talking of contrasts between Carter and Wilson: One is simply. . .what shall I say? It's not that Carter lacks charisma-I think he has some-but he is unable to communicate great ideas and to formulate great programs in language that will capture the hearts and inspire the minds of the people, as Wilson could. Carter can say the most important things in the dullest way, particularly in public addresses. He is much better in unrehearsed encounters, press conferences and the like. But on the whole, he has, so far, a miserable public style. I want to emphasize that I have enormous respect for Carter as a man, but I do feel that his leadership so far has been inept; he has not been able to rally the country.
Wilson, by contrast, along with his great knowledge, had an unparalleled grasp of the English language.He could change history through rhetoric. He was probably the greatest orator since Edumund Burke. The majesty of his prose could and did rally people to a cause.
...(Wilson) had a very varm working realtionship with Congress.
Q: Why has Carter failed to achieve that?
A: The answer is complicated, but one main reason is the enormous White House staff, which has been a buffer in recent years between the president and Congress, and the people, too, and the heads of governmental departments. The president now has so many assistants of one kind and another that he spends his time running the staff, and the staff runs the country, or tries to. That was definitely not true in Wilson's time. . .
A president with a staff of 400 has to spend most of his time dealing with that staff. You have to take the position that you are the leader. Truman put it very well: "The buck stops here." FDR had only two or three assistants in the White House before 1938.
Q: Why has the staff grown so?
A: I think the political insecurity of recent presidents is one main cause. And by "political insecurity" I mean the fact that no president since Truman has really been the leader of his party, except Johnson, briefly. The notion of the executive administering through a staff started with Eisenhower, who had had no experience in politics before coming to the White House, and in fact was not very much interested in politics. His experience was all in the military, where everything is done through staff, to the point where a general isn't permitted even to make his own phone calls! Ike simply transferred the military command system to the White House. Kennedy perpetuated it because it suited his insecurity and youth. Johnson operated more directly, but he kept the system; and under Nixon, the most insecure of all, it took a quantum leap. It's a common assumption today that it "has to be this way," but if we had a Wilson in the White House we'd see a dramatic change.
It's axiomatic today that the president has to have a battery of speechwriters. This began with FDR, and it's been assumed ever since that a president hasn't the time-or the capacity!-to write his own speeches. The whole office of the presidency has become so bureaucratized and overstaffed that there isn't time for the president to perform a leadership role. Carter has shown that, when he does take hold personally, he can be effective in dealing with a problem, but it's clear that he perceives the presidential role as that of manager rather than leader, and in a democracy, a bureaucracy is no substitute for creative and dynamic leadership.
Q: Is that the principal lesson Carter has to learn from Wilson?
A: Yes, I think so: the lesson of what leadership really consists of; how Wilson was able to do the job so well with so little help. . .
Wilson worked from a basis of carefully thought-out fixed principles: a series of basic assumptions of what was morally, socially, politically right and wrong. With that, he used the instrumentalities at hand to get the best solutions possible. He was able to compromise without losing sight of his true objectives. This gave him a sense of security.
Only a person with that kind of security can truly comprehend and deal with the ambiguities and perplexities of life, can freely and fearlessly run its moral risks, and provide strong leadership. As Luther said. "Believe in God and sin bravely."