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Last Updated on January 13, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1818

Author: A. Scott Berg (b. 1949)

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Publisher: Putnam (New York). Illustrated. 832 pp.

Type of work: Biography

In his in-depth biography of Woodrow Wilson, A. Scott Berg makes the case that Wilson was the first truly modern president, setting an agenda in domestic and international affairs that would reverberate for the rest of the twentieth century.

Woodrow Wilson has been a controversial figure for a century. Some see him as a statist villain who played a central role in subordinating American liberties to the encroachments of the federal government. Others regard him as a heroic figure who fought valiantly against the forces of big business and martyred himself in the struggle for world peace. Indeed, how one reads the history of the United States in the twentieth century shapes one's interpretation of Wilson's record as chief executive. Also complicating the historical assessment of Wilson is the compelling trajectory of his presidency. Remarkable contrasts shade any account of Wilson as a political leader. For most of his life, he was academic, a professor and later president of Princeton University. He served as governor of New Jersey for less than two years before running for president. A Democrat, Wilson was the fortunate beneficiary of a split in the Republican Party that divided its votes between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. Once in the White House, he compiled a legislative record that would be unequaled in its political and economic significance until Franklin D. Roosevelt launched the New Deal. During World War I, Wilson led the United States into a position of unprecedented military and diplomatic power. For a time, Wilson was the most influential man in the world, but his power was greatly diminished after a debilitating stroke, which occurred during the grueling battle to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and form the League of Nations, rendered Wilson largely confined to his bed and a wheelchair. The treaty failed, and Wilson left office a broken man. Few presidential narratives can match that of Wilson for triumph and tragedy. With such a story, drama can easily overwhelm sober analysis.

As the latest in a long line of Wilson biographers, A. Scott Berg provides a dramatic rather than an analytic version of the life of his subject. The book does not serve as a reference to the political and diplomatic issues confronting Americans in the 1910s. Berg accepts without question the essential rightness of Wilson's Progressive politics and his dramatic expansion of the modern regulatory state in the United States. He notes with disapproval Wilson's stunning restrictions on freedom of speech and civil liberties during World War I but fails to connect this to the broader pattern of Progressive political philosophy. Because Berg simply assumes the correctness of most of Wilson's political positions, he is not all that interested in them. A better biographer than historian, Berg sacrifices context to character. People interest him, not ideas or social forces. He notes the passage of laws and, when it suits him, describes Wilson's efforts to see them enacted, but he does little to explain their larger significance. He spends many pages on Wilson's ambivalent support of women's suffrage but barely mentions the creation of the Federal Trade Commission, a crucial component of the new regulatory regime that Wilson constructed during his presidency. His discussion of the mobilization of the American economy during World War I glosses over many problems much discussed by contemporaries. A more insightful discussion of the times in which Wilson lived would give readers a better appreciation for his challenges and achievements than they receive from this volume.

Wilson's imperfections as a biography, however, do not keep it from being an important one. An accomplished biographer who won a National Book Award for Max Perkins: Editor of Genius (1978), and a Pulitzer Prize for Lindbergh (1998), Berg has a gift for evoking the personality of historical figures. In Wilson, Berg excels at recreating the private world of his subject, who emerges as a driven and passionate human being.

Though hungry for the acclaim of the public, Wilson was ultimately far more dependent on the love of the women in his life. He found succor in a home that he shared with a loving wife and three adoring daughters. Wilson's affinity for women never turned him into a ladies' man. He did enjoy a relationship with a widow, Mary Allen Hulbert Peck, which Berg convincingly argues was thoroughly platonic. When Wilson's first wife, Ellen Axson Wilson, died in 1914, Wilson was inconsolable and lonely. He did not find happiness again until he began courting the woman who became his second wife in December 1915, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson. While Berg finds Wilson innocent of any sexual wrongdoing as a husband, such was not the opinion of many of his contemporaries, who repeated rumors about Peck. During his courtship of Edith, ribald stories circulated in Washington. Political enemies such as Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge believed these stories, helping to harden them in their detestation of the president.

Wilson's relationship with men was different. He was a joiner from an early age, always eminently clubbable, and for years loyally attended college reunions. As a college professor, he enthusiastically watched football games and even occasionally helped coach the team. Yet despite Wilson's genuinely fraternal approach to his associates, he had few close friends. He would cut off friends completely if they disagreed with him on an important issue, something that he saw as a personal betrayal. Wilson's best friend during his years at Princeton University, first as a professor and then as president, was a fellow professor, John Grier Hibben. For years, Wilson and Hibben were inseparable. Yet when Wilson as president of the university proposed a plan to create new residential quadrangles, Hibben opposed it. Wilson never addressed another friendly word to Hibben. While president of the United States, Wilson became very close to Colonel Edward House. For years, House acted as his personal representative on sensitive diplomatic missions during World War I. Wilson named House to the American delegation at the postwar peace conference. In Paris, House showed signs of personal initiative in dealing with the British and French. Wilson interpreted this as disloyalty and shut House out of his life and any further role in policy making. Wilson even turned on his faithful personal secretary, Joseph Tumulty, when, after Wilson left the White House, Tumulty presumed too much in asking for political favors.

A. Scott Berg is an award-winning biographer. His biography Max Perkins: Editor of Genius (1978) won a National Book Award, and his Lindbergh (1998) won the Pulitzer Prize.

Wilson could inspire masses of people with his soaring rhetoric, but when it came to dealing with individuals, he often found himself frustrated. He lacked the ability to bargain and make deals that characterizes many political leaders. An idealist firmly convinced of the rightness of his convictions, Wilson was no compromiser. He was fortunate that when elected president he enjoyed solid Democratic majorities in Congress. Wilson was an admirer of the British parliamentary system and envisioned himself as a prime minister marshalling his members for party-line votes. This inspired him to break with presidential tradition by repeatedly addressing Congress in person and lobbying its members. Wilson proved to be an effective and successful party leader; he regarded the Democrats in Congress as his followers, and for the most part, they were willing to play this role. As long as the Democrats comfortably controlled Congress, Wilson maintained legislative control. Once the Republicans captured Congress in 1918, Wilson no longer commanded a docile majority. Wilson had never learned how to work effectively with political opponents; indeed, when his program to reform Princeton stirred up serious disagreement, he withdrew, instead entering the race for governor of New Jersey. During the contentious negotiations at the Paris peace conference, his health began to give way. Facing strenuous opposition to his vision of the League of Nations in the Senate, he collapsed.

Berg sheds a great deal of light on the controversial issue of Wilson's health. He benefitted from unprecedented access to the papers of Admiral Cary T. Grayson, Wilson's personal physician in the White House. Wilson was not the most robust of men when he became president in his fifty-sixth year. He had long been plagued by gastric disorders and suffered from cerebral vascular disease. Grayson ordered his distinguished patient to preserve his health by finding time to exercise and rest. Wilson took long rides around the city of Washington and golfed more than any president before or since. None of this could spare Wilson the stress of leadership, however, especially when he had to make decisions about war and peace. In 1919, while he was embroiled in intense negotiations with French premier Georges Clemenceau and British prime minister David Lloyd George, Wilson's longstanding difficulties with cerebral vascular disease intensified. In April, an infection precipitated neurological symptoms that adversely affected his personality. Later that month, he suffered a small stroke. Back home in the United States in July, he was struck by another stroke. Clearly unwell, Wilson found himself in a battle with Senate Republicans over the Treaty of Versailles and its centerpiece, the League of Nations. Wilson believed that the league guaranteed a new era of peace and in time would rectify any problems with the treaty. Most Senate Republicans, led by the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, Henry Cabot Lodge, insisted on changes to the treaty that would protect American sovereignty. Wilson refused to make any concessions. Despite his ailments, he embarked on a strenuous speaking tour, appealing to the American people. He fell ill and, on October 2, experienced a massive stroke that left him bedridden.

Berg notes that Wilson never lost his capacity to think, but his ability to work was drastically reduced, and he remained something close to a recluse for the rest of his presidency. Berg dismisses the contention that Edith Wilson effectively became the chief executive but argues that she did act as an unofficial chief of staff, controlling and restricting access to the president. Wilson resisted suggestions that he resign, and his unambitious vice president did not press the matter. For the remainder of Wilson's presidency, the country drifted through the failure to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, a chaotic demobilization, and the Red Scare. It was a sad ending for a man who had aspired to so much. Berg's achievement is that he enables the reader, whatever his or her assessment of Wilson's policies, to share in and sympathize with the travails of Wilson the man.

Review Sources

  • Hooper, Brad. Rev. of Wilson, by A. Scott Berg. Booklist 1 June 2013: 22. Print.
  • Lepore, Jill. "The Tug of War." Rev. of Wilson, by A. Scott Berg. New Yorker 9 Sept. 2013: 81–85. Print.
  • Slater, Robert B. Rev. of Wilson, by A. Scott Berg. Library Journal 1 June 2013: 116. Print.
  • Rev. of Wilson, by A. Scott Berg. Kirkus Reviews 15 June 2013: 43. Print.
  • Rev. of Wilson, by A. Scott Berg. Publishers Weekly 8 July 2013: 77–78. Print.

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