28. T. Woodrow Wilson
Birthplace (January 26, 2007)
In the history of two-term American presidents who embarked on bold and difficult programs of international democratization only to get stinging rebukes from a narrow-minded Congress, and also dressed like The Penguin, Woodrow Wilson is undeniably the first!
You can learn all about it at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library in Staunton, Va., which is Wilson's birthplace and home through the ripe old age of one. It's somewhere between a full-fledged historical site and "George Washington Slept Here"; think "Woodrow Wilson Puked Up Baby Carrots Here."
Son of Presbyterian minister, he grew up in the post-Civil War South, went to Princeton, got a law degree from U.Va., and a doctorate in polysci from The Johns Hopkins. He taught a bunch, wrote books, and became president of Princeton; ran for governor of New Jersey and two years after winning that was nominated for the Presidency. He beat a sitting president (Taft) and a former president (Roosevelt) in 1912 with only 42 percent of the popular vote, got re-elected in 1916, put U.S. troops in Europe to end World War I, tried to reorganize world order (14 Points) and basically killed himself through the intense effort to get the U.S. to join the League of Nations. (He had a huge stroke and actually kept it hidden from the public by going dark for about four months. Imagine trying that in the TV age.)
We like to think that 9/11 kicked off some of the most drastic changes in world history, but imagine what people went through during the Wilson era (1913-21): Women's suffrage. Prohibition. Military draft. World War I crushed Europe and the United States became the most powerful country in the world. The Bolsheviks took over Russia. The 8-hour work day. End to child labor. Automobiles started to become widespread. Spanish Flu. NUTS.
Thumbs up for the museum. They have some very cool relics (like his car) and some informative displays. The site also include "The Manse," where the Wilson family lived. Funny moment: the excellent tour guide points to the bed in the parents' room (the original, not a replica) and says "This is where it all began." She meant birth; I was thinking conception. When I asked she laughed and said "probably both." Kudos to you, lady. You're a pro.
But on to what you're paying for ... FUN WILSON FACTS!
Happy Birthday to Us (December 28, 2010)
One of the perks of being president -- aside from controlling the most powerful fighting force in history and a team of security professionals to help arrange extramarital affairs -- is that you're never alone your birthday. Even after you're dead!
It's a fine and venerable tradition that each president gets a wreath on his grave on the day of his birth. Some local military types put on their fines, grab their fanciest flags and report to the gravesite. Not wanting to be alone the morning of my birthday (Dec. 28), I joined the festivities this year for co-birthday boy Woodrow Wilson.
Since Woody rests in the National Cathedral, he gets some pretty swanky honor guards:
It takes about 30 military guys to lay a wreath: 20 to line a ceremonial human pathway, six guys to hold the flags, two guys to be in charge, one guy to play the drums and one guy to play the trumpet. Raytheon is probably bidding on a $263 billion wreath delivery system for the Army of the future, but for now it's a manpower intensive exercise. The ceremony surprisingly doesn't take all that long. After a quick prayer, they put the wreath (made by the White House florist, according to my sources) by the sarcophagus, a guy played taps, everyone in attendance got to shake hands with Wilson's skeleton and then the military guys headed off to their next gig.
Those of us with no worries about going AWOL popped off to Wilson's S St. home for cake.
Woodrow celebrated only a couple of birthdays at the townhouse in his living years. It's a pretty remarkable place: the building was built in 1915, the Wilsons moved there from the White House in 1921, and after Woodrow died in 1924 his second wife stayed there until she died in 1961. She gave the house straight to historic preservation types, and they had her notes plus everything the Wilsons ever owned, ever. That includes a huge array of phenomenally awesome gifts from friends and dignitaries (presidents could keep gifts back then), plus plenty of other momentos. When you walk in, you're seeing the house as it appeared in the 1920s.
He was a partial invalid in those years -- he hadn't physically recovered from a massive stroke a few years before -- and a lot of his time was spent shuffling around and being angry at things. He took in a few more baseball games; he was apparently a Phillies fan, and if he didn't feel up to getting out of his limo, he would just have his limo pulled onto the field at Senators games so he could watch from the front row. His body started shutting down, and he was dead before 70.
But the party rages on! The good folks of Woodrow Wilson House had a very nice reception on Tuesday, followed by a swanky tour. I had been on an abbreviated tour before, but this time I got to go upstairs. That brought into play Edith's room -- decked out with Pocahontas memorabilia (she was a direct descendant) -- and Woodrow's room -- decked out with a painting that looked like his first wife (he was a bit of a clod). They had separate rooms because Woodrow was on a "no stressful activity" regimen, and Edith apparently thought she was sexy enough to kill him. That wasn't enough to save him, and they still have the pink fainting couch where Wilson fainted for the very last time. If you have an hour and you're in DC, you should check it out.
It was a good birthday for everyone. The nice thing about turning 34, or 154, is that you pretty much know yourself at that point. Why not spend your celebrations doing the things you love, with some of the people you love? And if those people are dead former heads of state, who's to judge?
Well, you. But you know what? I've got a smoking hot wife who puts up with this crappy hobby, so I don't care.
MORE FUN WILSON FACTS!
Here Lies Mr. Wilson (1/3/08)
As part of my birthday celebration last week, I stopped by the National Cathedral to pay my respects to everyone's favorite sexist, foot-dragging, doctorate-degree having, stroke-suffering president, T. Woodrow Wilson (also born Dec. 28).
It's probably the closest you can get to a dead president without the use of a crowbar. He's in a floor-level sarcophagus on the south side of the room, and you can walk right up to it. I'm guessing you could climb on the lid, start pounding it with your fists and scream "Why did you leave me" for a good 30 seconds before security could respond.
There are a few quotes on the walls and the seal of the president in the floor. But for a guy who led us through World War I and positioned the United States as the number one power broker of the 20th century, it's remarkably understated. The whole thing seems like an afterthought in the context of the Cathedral itself.
But if you think Wilson has it bad, his wife Edith, who may have been effectively running the country after Wilson stroked out, is also in the cathedral ... in the vault underneath the floor where Wislon sits. So you're walking over top of her the whole time you're looking at him.
Wilson House (10/30/08)
Woodrow Wilson didn't exactly gallop across the finish line of his presidency, what with being half paralyzed and not tremendously popular even in his own party. So instead of heading back to the healing waters of New Jersey, he set up shop in Washington, D.C., in spitting distance of the White House. What better tonic than to live in the shadow of your failures!
Woodrow lived on S St. NW from 1921 to his death in 1924 (he died in the house) and his widow was there through something like 1960. He didn't have money when he left the government, so he had to use his stipend from the Nobel Peace Prize, plus cash gifts from buddies, to afford the place, which was selected in part for its accessibility -- it had an elevator and enough wide, spacious areas for the good doctor to get around with the aid of his manservant. Oh, and it had enough rooms for him to have a manservant.
I got a partial (but free!) tour, highlighting all the social areas -- the Wilsons entertained all sorts of bigwigs, but since it was so tough for Wilson to get into formal wear, a lot of the time he'd take a powder and chill out in his library while his wife saw to the guests. They had a parlor decorated with White House swag, a nice-sized dining room and a sweet back yard, but the highlight has to be the library. Wilson spent most of his time there, shuffling back and forth from chair to bookshelf. It's a neat, stately room, with an interesting flourish: a roll-up movie screen mounted to the top of the bookshelf, and the movie projector to go with it. For 1921, that was one hell of a home entertainment system.
The garage also has a treat (at least through the end of the year), in the form of Wilson's Rolls Royce Silver Ghost Touring Car; he couldn't drive it, but apparently he enjoyed being chauffered up and down S St. It has orange highlights to honor his Princeton ties, and his initials, plus a swank hood ornament. Six miles to the gallon, baby.