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The New York Times call Carl Mayer: "A populist crusader and ... a maverick lawyer." New York Times, October 15, 2004.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005


What Would Woodrow Wilson Think About Woodrow Wilson?
By Carl J. Mayer.

As a graduate of the Woodrow Wilson School’s undergraduate program (’81) I am quite impressed by the dedication Dean Slaughter applied to launching the 75th anniversary of the school.

Plainly, the anniversary celebration is a reflection of the renewed energy Dean Slaughter brings to the institution. I can personally vouch for the fact that, other than friends and family, my e-mail box is deluged with more invitations and updates from the Woodrow Wilson School than from any other quarter.

I can’t help wonder, however, what Woodrow Wilson himself would think of the direction of the Woodrow Wilson School as it celebrates its gala anniversary year.

Undoubtedly Wilson would have been impressed by the school’s renewed focus on foreign policy (and likely puzzled by the distinctly unilateralist flavor of many of the school’s offerings and assumptions) but Wilson’s most fundamental question would be: Where is the link between American democracy at home and our nation’s foreign policy abroad?

The core of Wilson’s thinking was that in order to lead by example, American democratic institutions need to be strengthened in order to foster the spread of democratic ideals around the globe. One of Wilson’s overriding concerns was the elimination of corruption in American politics and a steadfast belief that perfecting a clean and participatory democracy at home would serve as a model for other nations abroad.

In his book, Congressional Government, Wilson noted: "the voter, moreover, feels that his want of confidence in Congress is justified by what he hears of the power of corrupt lobbyists to turn legislation to their own uses. He hears of enormous subsidies begged and obtained... of appropriations made in the interest of dishonest contractors…”

These words could easily have been penned today but you will not find much discussion of this dimension of Woodrow Wilson’s thinking at the school today.

It is similarly puzzling that there is not one course offering on the problem of corruption in American politics at the Woodrow Wilson School.

Enter the word “corruption” in the Woodrow Wilson school website and up pop wonderful papers about monitoring graft in Indonesia and money-laundering in South Africa, but no studies of the most crooked state in the Union that is home to the Woodrow Wilson School: New Jersey. The abject venality of New Jersey politics – leading to the resignation of the last two state-wide elected leaders – has been the subject of academic commentary and has been chronicled relentlessly on the front pages of all of New Jersey’s major newspapers. A Quinnipiac University poll on New Jersey politics released yesterday found that a stunning 92% of New Jersey voters believe corruption is the leading issue in the state.

I am even told that an ethical or criminal transgression or two has occurred recently in the corridors of power in Washington, D.C.

You would not know this, unfortunately, by following the Wilson School’s curriculum or even perusing the school’s conference schedule or paper offerings.

Were he to return from the great beyond Woodrow Wilson would undoubtedly be tremendously saddened to see that in New Jersey the Democratic Party that he led as a party of reform has become the party of graft and criminality. He would be doubly distraught to learn that an institution bearing his name is not leading the fight to understand and then combat the very roadblocks to true democracy that Wilson focused on when he perambulated the halls of Old Nassau.

Gradually, I believe, there is a growing awakening in the academy that the many fine papers and policy proposals on poverty, environmentalism, transportation and a host of other subjects go unread and unheeded by elected leaders who spend 24/7 supplicating themselves to special interests and raising corporate cash as fast as their fingers can dial.

Only when the problem of corruption (sometimes criminal) is studied, acted upon and then eradicated will the substantive ideas of many important scholars, laboring in the tradition of Woodrow Wilson, have a chance to have a chance.

The biggest challenge for the Woodrow Wilson School today is quite simply that only a small minority of its graduates actually go into government service. The problem has become so acute that the school’s largest benefactors are now in well-known litigation.

As someone who has served in government and has been involved in politics it is no surprise why many choose not to serve. The overriding attitude of my classmates from ’81 is: why would you want to do that? They think politics and political service is cheap, phony, mercenary and above all crooked.

If the Wilson School re-captured Wilson’s own high-minded idealism and democratic vision, and focused on ending the reign of the special interests in American politics, maybe the school would attract more individuals dedicated to service and reform.

Carl J. Mayer, ’81.

Carl Mayer, an attorney, is the author of the book: Shakedown: The Fleecing of the Garden State. His blog is He can be reached at

Phone: 609-462-7979


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