Debunking Wilson’s rave for ‘The Birth of a Nation’

“On February 18 [1915] Wilson and his daughters and his Cabinet gathered in the East Room for the first running of a motion picture in the White House  [“The Clansman,” later retitled “The Birth of a Nation.”]

” ‘It was like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true,’ Wilson purportedly said when the lights came up. In fact, Wilson almost certainly never said it. The encomium does not even appear in the unpublished memoirs of the self-serving Thomas Dixon. The only firsthand record of Wilson’s feelings about the film appear in a letter three years later, in which he wrote , ‘I have always felt that this was a very unfortunate production and I wish most sincerely that its production might be avoided, particularity in communities where there are so many colored people.’ … Another member of the audience that night reported that the President seemed lost in thought during the film and exited the East Room upon its completion without saying a word to anybody….

“The comment did not appear in print for more than two decades. In any case, word of a White House screening circulated, and that was tantamount to a Presidential endorsement.”

— From “Wilson” by A. Scott Berg (2013)

 

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