On February 18, 1915 Woodrow Wilson, his daughters, his cabinet and their wives gathered in the East Room of the White House for the first ever showing of a motion picture in the executive mansion. The film shown, Birth of a Nation, presented a racist picture of the post-Civil War South which glorified the Ku Klux Klan. After viewing the film Woodrow Wilson was purportedly to have said: “It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret it is that it is all so terribly true.” In fact, Wilson almost certainly never said it.
Thomas W. Dixon, Jr. author of The Birth of a Nation’s source play and novel The Clansman was a former classmate of Woodrow Wilson’s at Johns Hopkins University in the 1880’s. In an effort to counter growing criticism of the film from the NAACP and to gain a Presidential endorsement, Dixon called at the White House to ask his old acquaintance to preview the film as a personal favor. “Of Course,” Dixon later wrote Wilson’s Secretary Joe Tumulty, “I didn’t dare allow the President to know the real big purpose back of the film, which was to revolutionize Northern sentiments by a presentation of history that would transform every man in the audience into a good Democrat!” Instead he told the President, “I would show him the birth of a new art, the launching of the mightiest engine for molding public opinion in the history of the world.” Wilson, still in mourning after the death of his wife Ellen some five months earlier, said he could not attend the theater but was not averse to a private showing in the White House.
How Wilson reacted to the film is a matter of dispute. It was twenty-two years before the quote “It is like writing history with lightning …” first appeared in print. In fact, Dixon did not even mention the quote in his memoirs. Others recalled that Wilson did not pay much attention to the showing and left when it was over without saying a word. As agitation over the film increased Wilson drafted a statement for Tumulty to send under his name to a fellow Democrat: “It is true that The Birth of a Nation was produced before the President and his family at the White House, but the President was entirely unaware of the character of the play before it was presented and has at no time expressed his approbation of it. Its exhibition at the White House was a courtesy extended to an old acquaintance.” Three years later Wilson told Tumulty “I have always felt that this was a very unfortunate production and I wish most sincerely that its production might be avoided, particularly in communities where there are so many colored people.” This appears to be Wilson’s last words on the subject, and as his biographer A Scott Berg has written, “he surely would have been troubled by the political implications of publicly supporting a movie mired in so much controversy.”