What Goes Around, Comes Around, Even for Presidents like Wilson

John Abraham Davis, center, and his family at their farm in the early 1900s.

John Abraham Davis, center, and his family at their farm in the early 1900s.

New Orleans     A saying with common currency in recent years has been, “haters gonna hate.”  An old one that seems almost timeless from the later part of the last century is, “what goes around, comes around.”  As a matter of long standing record, I’m rooting for campus protestors these days on the issues of race and sexual abuse, and campuses around the country continue to heat up, reminiscent of the good old days of some of our youth around both issues.  

            Coincidentally, I happened to be on a Skype call yesterday with a New York based publisher, who mentioned at the end of our call that he had graduated from Princeton and how proud he was of the protest and sit-in on his old campus around the issues of Woodrow Wilson’s blatant racism.  Though many know Wilson as the World War I president along with his failed leadership to create the League of Nations, which later laid the groundwork for the establishment of the United Nations, fewer are familiar with his hardcore racism, including expressed sympathies for the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan. 

            Some hearing this unwelcome and tawdry news about a former US President from Virginia might say, “Well, he was a man of his times.”  Hmmm….yes, perhaps, if his times were the mid-1800’s rather than 100-years ago.  Furthermore, the protestors have it right.  They’re not just picking on him long distance from Princeton, New Jersey to Washington, DC, since he was also later the President of Princeton University and is honored widely on campus with buildings bearing his name and an Institute and scholarships as well. 

            What goes around, comes around when the arc of justice bends our way though, and this may be the moment.  In a moving op-ed in the Times, Gordon Davis, a lawyer, wrote of his grandfather, John Abraham Davis, who had passed the civil service exam, along with many other African-Americans in late 19th century when the federal service outlawed discrimination.  He had started on the bottom but had worked his way up to being a mid-level supervisor of many including whites at the Government Printing Office, making decent, middle class wages appropriate to his 30 years of seniority.  Within months of Woodrow Wilson becoming President his administration rolled all of that progress backward as the President and his appointees, including in the Post Office where there had been a deliberate campaign promise to re-segregate especially in the south.  Davis wrote that his grandfather lost the family farm after being demoted to menial jobs at hugely reduced pay, and died a broken man rather than the respected member of the community he had been.

            Princeton should feel the heat, and they must make the change.    The publisher immediately understood that.  My brother with a PhD from Princeton would have been clear about this as well.

            Presidents should worry about their legacy and the judgment of history.  Bill Clinton still has much to do to outrun the pain inflicted by his program to “end welfare as we know it” and kowtow to Wall Street by eliminating Glass-Steagall and helping usher in the Great Recession.  George W. Bush no doubt reads daily of the disasters in Iraq still and the ripple effects throughout the Middle East including in Syria.  Lyndon Johnson knew that despite many legislative accomplishments that there was no way to get Vietnam off of his shoes.  No amount of spinning can ever make Richard Nixon look good, and so it goes on and on.    Barack Obama is wildly trying to sprint faster to make change in the last two years of his term after disappointing so many in his early years.

            The rich and powerful should never sleep soundly without being very, very careful about the certainty that for many, what goes around will indeed come around.