Princeton University has decided to remove former President Woodrow Wilson’s name from its school of Public and International Affairs, citing his “racist thinking and policies.” Looking solely through the lens of race relations, the case against Wilson is clear. In his 1912 run for the White House, Wilson would warm up the crowds with racial jokes that today would be unprintable.
And while lately expressions like “systemic racism” and “white supremacy” have been thrown around quite liberally, the Wilson administration provides literal examples of these concepts enacted as government policy. Gazing back across the long century since Wilson was in office shows the progress we have made as a country.
Wilson is not alone in being erased. Monuments to the once sacrosanct George Washington have been vandalized. Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson statues are also under siege, and the venerable Democratic tradition of the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner has been abandoned because neither party founder meets contemporary muster. The first two Republican presidents, Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, are also facing censure and calls from radicals to have their monuments taken down. The fact that between them Lincoln and Grant defeated the Confederacy, ended slavery, and enforced the anti-slavery amendments to the Constitution seems inconsequential to the woke mob.
Do past presidents need to be perfect?
It is ironic that statues are the most visible targets of radical ire since they are idealized visions of flawed people. Looking at past presidents, how far do we go in demanding they live up to a statuesque level of perfection?
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Franklin D. Roosevelt has been conspicuously unscathed in the recent round of iconoclasm, but his record on race is hardly commendable. The same people who castigated President Donald Trump for allegedly putting immigrant children in cages ought to be incensed over FDR’s internment of 120,000 Japanese during World War II, most of whom were American citizens. He also blocked Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany, kept the armed forces segregated, and praised Confederate General Robert E. Lee as “one of our greatest American Christians and one of our greatest American gentlemen.”
Any hint of admiration for Lee means automatic cancellation these days but in the mid-20th century, it was ordinary and accepted. Dwight D. Eisenhower studied Lee’s campaigns at West Point and hung his portrait in the White House. He told the 1953 convention of the United Daughters of the Confederacy that Lee was a man who could “fight brilliantly — for ideals in which he firmly and honestly believed, but still, at the same time, could be a great and noble character.” This was considered no more controversial in Ike’s day than when then-Senator Joe Biden in 1993 referred to the UDC as a group of “fine people” who “continue to display the Confederate flag as a symbol.”
A reminder of what not to repeat: Use Confederate statues and names to educate
John Kennedy praised Lee as well as pro-slavery Sen. John C. Calhoun — recently scrubbed from a Yale college — whom Kennedy included in his Pulitzer Prize-winning "Profiles in Courage." Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, but even in his day radicals denounced him as a racist and “war criminal.” Comedian Lenny Bruce did a bit about how Johnson’s handlers had to train him to say “Negro” instead of a similar-sounding word that came more naturally to him. Yet even that kind of smart observational humor is now off-limits; Brandeis University, which houses the Bruce papers, buckled to pressure to cancel a play based on Lenny’s acts because student activists charged the material was “overtly racist.” Poor Lenny was too vulgar for the conservative power structure of his era, and too frank for the intolerant left today.
Gerald R. Ford signed a bill restoring Lee’s citizenship in 1975, which had passed with near-unanimous support in both houses, and which Ford said was “an event in which every American can take pride.” And three years later Jimmy Carter granted the same honor to Confederate president Jefferson Davis, with the support of freshman Sen. Biden. At the signing ceremony, Carter said, “our Nation needs to clear away the guilts and enmities and recriminations of the past, to finally set at rest the divisions that threatened to destroy our Nation and to discredit the principles on which it was founded.”
Carter’s words are more meaningful and important today than they were four decades ago. Now new divisions threaten the nation and its principles. The hunt for perfection in our past presidents, ripping their actions and statements from context and history to forge indictments based on rarefied contemporary standards, is a symptom of our divided times. For Princeton, canceling Wilson made sense. But we remove all the tributes to our imperfect presidents at our peril.
James S. Robbins, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors and author of "This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive," has taught at the National Defense University and the Marine Corps University and served as a special assistant in the office of the secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter: @James_Robbins
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Canceling presidents: First Woodrow Wilson, then Jimmy Carter?