Whenever President George W. Bush ventures abroad to meet foreign officials the question is not what will he get accomplished but whether or not he will be murdered. The man cannot set foot outside the United States without a bodyguard of thousands of armed men and women. He literally cannot make a public appearance for fear of his life.
No other world public figure rivals George W. Bush in low esteem. The man is despised everywhere. He is a universal hate object. You might think that distinction would have been conferred on Bush's friend, the thug-ugly Vladimir Putin, whose hands are red from his atrocities in Chechnya, but no, the globally reviled politician is the American president.
In his recent visit to England Bush's hosts did not dare even invite him to talk to the House of Commons lest he had been heckled into silence. The newspapers remarked that in this, only the second state visit by an American president, he made no public appearances, for fear the normally law-abiding English might have done something untoward to his presidential person.
For whatever reasons, no comparison between these two state visits was made, one by the least and one by the most popular American president, Woodrow Wilson. If Bush is the despair of most of the world, Wilson was its hope.
Wilson's bodyguard was the common people. "Everywhere he went he was the idol of the masses," wrote journalist Mark Sullivan. "Never since Peter the Hermit had Europe so blindly, so eagerly followed one leader. It was frequently said during late December 1918 that Wilson could overturn any government in Europe by an appeal to the people against their rulers." Millions turned out for him. Historian E. Dodd wrote, "The masses of European peasantry, shopkeepers and day laborers looked forward to his arrival as men looked in medieval times to the Second Coming of Christ."
Wilson, as no other president in our history, had the ability to talk to the people of the world in language that expressed their prayers for liberty, independence and dignity. As popular as Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy were with the humble people of the Earth, it was nothing compared to Wilson's. When President Wilson spoke, he reached the world.
When George W. Bush says, as he did in England, "We seek the advance of freedom and the peace that freedom brings," nobody believes him. When Woodrow Wilson spoke of peace, the self-determination of peoples and the spread of democracy, everybody did. Wilson, of course, was a superb speaker who never uttered a word he had not written himself; Bush is a mediocre speaker who has likely never uttered a word written by himself. But the major difference lies elsewhere.
Wilson, who belongs up on Mount Rushmore with the other biggies, had the flaws to match. He led the nation into a war that millions of his fellow citizens bitterly opposed; his civil liberties record makes George W. Bush look like a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union. Yet he could say, and not be met with derision, that, "Sometimes people call me an idealist. Well, that is the way I know I am an American. America is the only idealistic country in the world."
He was an idealist. It is with him that foreign aid begins. It is with him that America for the first time goes to war to uphold the grandest of ideals and means it. With all the mistakes that were made in negotiating the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, it remains that, perhaps for the first time ever, a major world power used it to secure freedom and self-determination for other peoples.
Above all else, Woodrow Wilson set before the world the ideal and goal of all the nations working together to prevent war and establish permanent peace. The idea of a League of Nations as the instrument to accomplish these goals came from many people and organizations, but Wilson was the politician who took up this dream and carried it forward until he was felled by a stroke while trying to convince the American people to embrace it.
By contrast, George W. Bush is a pre-Wilsonian, the retro-politician who has so convinced the world that he wants to boss it that his occasional statements in favor of working through the United Nations, Wilson's grandchild, are not taken seriously. When Wilson used the word freedom, it had body, heft and shape for his listeners. When Bush uses it, which he does incessantly, it's received as sloganeering on the part of a politician sinking in the sand in his exertions to produce a puppet democracy in Iraq.
There is one word, however, that President Bush never uses and Woodrow Wilson did. The word is victory. Wilson promised it and delivered. George W. Bush can't and won't.
Nicholas von Hoffman is a journalist, playwright and author of several books, including the forthcoming "Hoax."
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