Woodrow Wilson poses for a portrait in this undated photo. (Associated Press)
Opinion writer

At Princeton University, the image and name of Woodrow Wilson could soon be erased. He was the school’s president from 1902 to 1910, reforming it, transforming it and setting it on the path to academic excellence. He left the school and soon became America’s 28th president — a great one, some people believe — but he was born in the pre-Civil War South and was a contemptible racist most of his life. A bit late, he is being held accountable for that.

Some students are demanding that Wilson’s name be expunged from the Princeton campus, most prominently the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. They also want a mural of him taken down. They feel so strongly about this that they occupied the university president’s office, holding it for 32 hours until the school’s administration agreed to consider their demands.

Similar demonstrations have occurred at other colleges and universities. Amid student protests, Amherst College’s faculty have voted to boot its mascot, the red-coated and bewigged Lord Jeff, a British field marshal who may have sent blankets imbued with smallpox to Native Americans. His name is plastered on several New England locations, including the town in Massachusetts where the school is located. Lord Jeffery Amherst, 1st Baron Amherst of Montreal, hero of so many battles, has finally met ignominy.

Lord Jeff is one thing, Wilson another. The severe-looking president was in many ways a transformational progressive. He advocated women’s right to vote (the 19th Amendment) and the eight-hour workday, and he supported the Clayton Antitrust Act as well as the creation of the Federal Reserve and the Federal Trade Commission. He also backed the implementation of the federal income tax, a progressive way for the government to raise funds.

In foreign affairs, he took the country into World War I and helped create the League of Nations, which the United States, to his painful regret, did not join. He formulated an internationalism we now call “Wilsonian” that has influenced U.S. foreign policy ever since.

What’s lacking in the Princeton debate over Wilson, and similar debates elsewhere, is an appreciation for the word “and.” Instead, “but” is too often substituted, so that a person becomes one thing or another — not two things at once. Sometimes those things are in conflict, as with Thomas Jefferson. He drafted the Declaration of Independence, founded the University of Virginia and championed religious freedom. And he was a slaveholder. Still, I would keep his monument on the Tidal Basin.

George Washington, like Jefferson, owned slaves, freeing them only after he and his wife died. Andrew Jackson extended American democracy, yet he was brutal to Indians. Henry Ford made his car ubiquitous and paid his workers well. He was also an anti-Semite whose newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, advanced his bigotry. The paper had a huge circulation.

The ability and willingness to keep two opposing views in mind at the same time are hallmarks of adulthood. We grow up to respect the gray. Black or white, one or the other, is childish. It represents the worldview of someone who does not know the world.

Lyndon Johnson abused his aides, cheated on his wife, supported racial segregation early in his career — and embraced civil rights as president. More to the moment: Ben Carson is a brilliant surgeon and a political ignoramus. Neither one cancels out the other, but in choosing a president, one is more important than the other.

Still, there can be a tipping point where one quality simply obliterates all the others. When I look at Wilson’s portrait, I might think first of the League of Nations and second how when he grew ill his wife secretly governed in his stead — and not give primacy to his racism. But I am white, so Wilson’s support of Jim Crow laws and his determination to implement them in the civil service may not give me the same emotional jolt that they do a black person.

So, what are we to do with Jefferson, Jackson, Wilson and the rest? Can Americans of color be expected to honor historical figures who hardly honored their ancestors and instead enslaved, exploited and even killed them? That can be hard. Still, we have an obligation to place historical figures in the context of their times and to accord them what they, in some instances, did not accord others: understanding. Woodrow Wilson was not one thing or another. He was one thing and another. It’s a lesson Princeton should teach.

Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.