Looking back on American history, there don’t appear to have been many presidents who could be described as a “barrel of laughs.”
But among the most dour has to be Woodrow Wilson. Described as being humorless, immodest and self-righteous, Wilson was far better suited for one of his prior job, president of Princeton University – even if he apparently wasn’t very good at that, either – than leading the United States.
Not surprisingly, other world leaders found him difficult to stomach.
During the Versailles Treaty talks, for example, Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes, a small, deaf, pugnacious individual, knocked heads with Wilson regularly.
In The End of Order: Versailles 1919, Charles L. Mee Jr. writes that Hughes was befuddled by Wilson’s plan to have all the colonies of defeated Germany be overseen by larger nations, appointed by the League of Nations.
The idea, for example, that Australia might become guardian of New Guinea, confused Hughes.
If Wilson’s plan were a genuine proposal to abolish colonies, it would be a threat to the British Empire, and to Hughes’ plan to annex New Guinea, Mee writes. If it were a ruse to disguise the real nature of colonial control, Hughes thought Wilson’s plan contemptible.
When, during a meeting involving Wilson and Hughes, the latter told the former that he bluntly wanted New Guinea and didn’t want anyone else involved, particularly a “League of Nations,” Wilson was moderate, conciliatory and, of course, condescending:
Surely Hughes did not mean to have New Guinea if he were opposed by the wishes of the whole world?”
Hughes, his hand to his ear, shouted: ‘Yes, that’s about it!’
Wilson was taken aback by the man’s manner. The president did finally concede, however, that a vote could be taken of the natives to determine their wishes.
‘Do you know, Mr. President,’ said Hughes, ‘that these natives eat one another?’
Wilson looked at Hughes sourly and declined to reply.
David Lloyd George, the British prime minister, tried to come to Hughes’ assistance, to let Hughes show Wilson that he was a well-intentioned man – “in short, a man ideally suited to have the mandate for New Guinea.”
‘And would you,’ Lloyd George asked gently, ‘allow the natives to have access to the missionaries, Mr. Hughes?’
‘Indeed I would, sir,’ replied Hughes, ‘for there are many days when these poor devils do not get half enough missionaries to eat.’
Wilson’s reaction to that quip is unrecorded.