Saturday, February 03, 2007

February 3, 1924:

Woodrow Wilson Dies, Leaves Adjective Behind

With the advanced medical treatment available to later presidents, along with modern physical therapy, Woodrow Wilson's retirement might have been longer and healthier than the roughly three years he got. With the 25th amendment to the US Constitution in place, Vice President Thomas Marshall would certainly have become Acting President after Wilson's strokes in 1919, and may have even persuaded the Senate to let the United States join the League of Nations.

But that was then, and while he was still in office, his wife and doctor hid the extend of President Wilson's illness from the vice president, his cabinet, Congress, the press and the rest of the American people, as astonishing as that might seem to us. He finally died this day 83 years ago. His legacies are many, however, and historians still argue about them.

One mark of his importance as a president and statesman is the fact that left behind an adjective based on his name -- one attached to a political philosophy that still has its defenders and detractors. Wilsonian ideals or idealism is usual the formulation. Two other common -ian adjectives made from presidential names are Jeffersonian and Jacksonian, both of which usually modify "democracy" and also refer to specific periods in US history. There's also the Madisonian model, referring to a kind of president like Madison in his exercise of power, but that's not in particularly widespread use.

Of course, any name can become an adjective, and it's common enough to see other presidents' names used that way -- but typically they refer to traits associated with the man himself, not with a larger political philosophy. Moreover, their usage fades as the memory of the president fades. Current commentators talk of Nixonian and Clintonian duplicity (to use a Republican and Democratic example), but not too often of Piercian and Buchanian indecisiveness in the face of the long-ago sectional crisis. Presumably those two didn't merit adjectives in the long run, and Nixon and Clinton might not either.

But what about other presidents that probably do merit adjectives but don't really have them? Say, Washington, Lincoln, either of the Roosevelts? Washingtonian usually means someone who lives in DC, and while Lincolnian is used, it refers more often to the characteristics of the man or his presidential decisions, not -- as it could well -- his interpretation of the Constitution as permanently binding on the states. The reason those two don't have the kind of adjective that Wilson does could be because Washington and Lincoln prevailed so completely in their efforts to establish and save the Union, respectively, that their political philosophies became the default position, and so hardly need a special name.

As for the Roosevelts, their adjective -- Rooseveltian -- just doesn't trip off the tongue. Also, there are two of them, representing rather different ideas. What would Rooseveltian mean? Speak softly, but carry a big Keynesian stick?

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