Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

Bush: a blow-up Santa among Presidents
Click to follow

Let me start with a seasonal confession. We have a new Christmas ornament this year - a small metal-framed deer with tiny sparkling white lights that bobs its head up and down as it "grazes" in the flowerbed on the front lawn.

A bit tacky perhaps, but not as bad as the inflatable and multi-coloured plastic snowmen favoured by some in our neighbourhood, in this thus far snowless and eerily warm Washington winter.

But then again, this is a city where Christmas lights run the gamut from the vulgar to the super-elegant - as anyone who's been to a White House Christmas party can attest. And the classiest I've seen this year are in a handsome 1915 Georgian Revival house just off Embassy Row, the diplomatic quarter of town.

The building was where Woodrow Wilson, crippled by a stroke, spent the final three years of his life after he moved out of the White House in March 1921. Today it is in part a museum to the 28th President, in part a frozen cameo of well-to-do domestic life in the immediate post-First World War era.

There are the obligatory signed portraits of King George V and Queen Mary, and Wilson's signature top hat and walking sticks are on display in the wardrobe by his bedroom. The house looks its best at this time of year, with Christmas decorations as restrained and dignified as the popular image of the man. And, needless to say, there's neither a plastic snowman nor a twinkling deer in sight.

But I mention Wilson and his Washington home for two other reasons. This Thursday, 28 December, marks the 150th anniversary of his birth. And this Christmas season marks a moment when Wilson is again a relevant and much scrutinised figure - indeed, some see him as a role model for the current occupant of the White House, now in the most difficult period of his presidency.

But the historical circumstances are anything but the same. Wilson's America was an emerging power, still the equal at best of the established European powers that had bled themselves dry in the Great War. George W Bush's America may be a superpower in decline, but it remains the only one around, with a military budget exceeding those of the next 12 countries combined.

The two leaders were personally very different too. Wilson was an academic who had been president of Princeton University. He was the last US President to write his own speeches and the only one to hold a PhD - attributes inconceivable for Bush. Wilson the Democrat introduced income tax, while most in the current President's Republican party would like nothing better than to abolish it.

But the similarities are no less striking. Both are stubborn individuals, convinced of their own rightness. Bush shares Wilson's idealistic, interventionist approach to foreign affairs, convinced of America's role as beacon to humanity, whose values of freedom and democracy should be exported to the world. At the end of the First World War, the leaders (if not the populations) of Europe were as dubious of Wilson's proselytising as their counterparts are today of Bush's ambitions to bring democracy to the Middle East. Both men were war Presidents who trampled on civil liberties. You may complain about secret wiretapping, prisoner abuse and other curtailments of personal freedoms under this President. But Bush's Patriot Act has nothing on the Espionage and Sedition Acts pushed through by Wilson in 1917 and 1918, which made criticism of the war or the military an offence punishable by 20 years' imprisonment, and for which 2,000 Americans were prosecuted. And for all his pious, almost saintly reputation, Wilson had an appalling record on race.

But in their approach to war and peace, there is one crucial difference. The last and best remembered of Wilson's "14 Points" of 1918 is his proposal for a League of Nations. In fact, it was his failure to sell the idea to his own country that brought about his debilitating stroke in 1919. But he tried, and Wilson is remembered for his belief in international organisations to keep the peace. On the other hand, no American President has ridden roughshod over the League or its successor, the United Nations, as crudely as Bush.

Wilson was a multilateralist, but Bush is the quintessential unilateralist, convinced that America can shape events anywhere to its will. The tragedy of Iraq, however, has shown the folly of that approach - which is why, while historians unfailingly put Wilson among the top 10 US Presidents, this Bush will surely be ranked among the very worst. A gulf, in other words, as wide as that between an artificial deer in fairy lights and the plain, dignified Christmas decorations of yesteryear.