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Presidents: Thomas Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum, Staunton, Virginia

Visited in 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.

Staunton was Wilson's birthplace and then his home through the ripe old age of one. It's somewhere between a full-fledged historical site and "George Washington Slept Here." So maybe, "Woodrow Wilson Puked Up Baby Carrots Here."

The son of a Presbyterian minister, Wilson grew up in the post-Civil War South. He went to Princeton, got a law degree from U.Va., and earned doctorate in polysci from THE Johns Hopkins University. He taught, wrote books, and became president of Princeton; ran for governor of New Jersey; and two years after winning that office he was nominated for the presidency.

Wilson beat a sitting president (Taft) and a former president (Roosevelt) in 1912 with only 42 percent of the popular vote. He got re-elected in 1916, put U.S. troops in Europe to end World War I, the tried to reorganize the world order. He basically killed himself via his 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 months. This would be impossible in the modern era.)

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. A military draft. World War I crushed Europe. The United States became the most powerful country in the world. The Bolsheviks took over Russia. The 8-hour work day. An end to child labor. Automobiles started to become widespread. Spanish Flu. It was all NUTS.

Based on my 2007 visit, I award the museum a hearty thumbs up. It has some very cool relics and some informative displays. The site includes "the Manse," where the Wilson family lived. Funny moment: The excellent tour guide points to the bed in the parents' room 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.

Woodrow Wilson House and National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Visited in 2010, 2015 and a bunch of other times.

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 on 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. Local military types will put on their fines, grab their fanciest flags and report to the grave site. Not wanting to be alone on my birthday (Dec. 28) in 2010, I joined the festivities for co-birthday boy Woodrow Wilson.

Woody is spending eternity in Washington National Cathedral. It's as close as 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 main 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 responds. 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 No. 1 power of the 20th century, it's remarkably understated. (His wife Edith, who may have been effectively running the country after Wilson stroked out in 1919, is also in the cathedral ... in the vault underneath the floor where Wilson sits. So you're walking over top of her the whole time you're looking at him.)

Washington is awash in military units devoted to pageantry, so the ceremony was a top-flight affair. Being dead never looked so good! 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) next to 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 nearby home for birthday cake.

Woodrow Wilson House, located on S St., represents the final melancholy chapter in Wilson's life. Wilson didn't exactly gallop across the finish line of his presidency, what with being half paralyzed by that stroke and not tremendously popular even in his own party. Instead of heading back to the healing waters of New Jersey -- he was the former president of Princeton and governor of that state -- he set up shop in spitting distance of the White House. What better tonic than to live in the shadow of your failures!

Woodrow celebrated only a couple of birthdays at the townhouse, but it's a remarkable place. It was built in 1915, and the Wilsons moved there upon leaving the White House in 1921. Wilson was short on cash when he left office, and he relied on gifts from friends -- along with his stipend from winning the Nobel Peace Prize -- to buy the property.

The home was selected in part for its accessibility. It had an elevator, and it also had enough wide, spacious areas for Wilson to move around with the aid of a manservant. A lot of Wilson's time at the house was spent shuffling around and being angry at things. He also took in a few baseball games; 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.

After Woodrow died in 1924, his second wife (Edith) stayed in the house until her death in 1961. She gave the house straight to historic preservation types, who had access to 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. When you walk in, you're seeing the house as it appeared in the 1920s.

The tour is excellent, and it highlights the social areas of the home. The Wilsons entertained all sorts of bigwigs, but since it was so tough for Wilson to get into formal wear, he'd often 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 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.

On the top floor, you can see Edith's room, which is decked out with Pocahontas memorabilia. (She was a direct descendant.) Woodrow's room is 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. Sadly, her prudence wasn't enough to save her husband. 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 hobby, so I don't care.

The Basics

Places You Should Visit

What Am I Missing?

Suggested Reading

Headliner of State

Fun Wilson Facts!