Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Book Review: Wilson, by A. Scott Berg (2013)

Paperback cover of Wilson, by A. Scott Berg, 2013. You can see some other presidential biographies on the shelf behind it. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)

Thomas Woodrow Wilson, 1856-1924. Despite how dour he often looked, Wilson actually had a pretty good sense of humor.

Author A. Scott Berg.
Woodrow Wilson had a remarkable rise to the presidency. Wilson came to politics from academia, rising to prominence as the President of Princeton University. In 1910, Wilson ran for Governor of New Jersey, and just two years after winning that election, won the presidency. Wilson’s life story is explored fully in A. Scott Berg’s 2013 biography, titled simply Wilson. 

Berg’s book is an interesting and highly readable look at Woodrow Wilson’s life and times. Berg is an unabashed Wilson fan, so there are times at which his account might give Wilson the benefit of the doubt too often. But Wilson is still an essential book for learning more about the personality of the 28th President. 

Wilson was our most educated president, as he remains the only occupant of the nation’s highest office to earn a Ph.D. With the current backlash against intellectuals of any political stripe, it seems unlikely that another Ph.D. will enter the Oval Office anytime soon. Berg quotes a letter from 1883 in which Wilson wrote, “I can never be happy unless I am enabled to lead an intellectual life.” (P.87) The only other presidents I can imagine giving voice to a similar opinion would be Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. 

Wilson was a studious and serious man, and when he found out he was to be the Democratic Party’s nominee for president in 1912, someone said to him, “Governor, you don’t seem a bit excited.” Wilson’s response was, “I can’t effervesce in the face of responsibility.” (P.234) Wilson worked hard as president, perhaps too hard, as his health was often precarious at best. Wilson also suffered from depression during his life, and Berg notes that the depression Wilson fell into after the Democrats’ defeats in the 1914 midterm elections was “the thirteenth such ‘breakdown’ in his adult life.” (P.345) Wilson had suffered a great personal loss as well in 1914, as his beloved wife Ellen died of Bright’s disease in August, just as World War I was beginning to consume Europe. 

As 1914 turned into 1915, many politicians wanted the United States to enter World War I, but Wilson did not consider it to be the United States’ business to enter into a European conflict. In early 1916, as war fever was mounting, Wilson said to one of his closest aides, “I have made up my mind that I am more interested in the opinion that the country will have of me ten years from now than the opinion it may be willing to express today…I will not be rushed into war, no matter if every damned congressman and senator stands up on his hind legs and proclaims me a coward.” (P.384) 

Of course, the United States entered World War I in 1917, and after the Allied victory in 1918, Wilson took a leading role in the negotiations for the Treaty of Versailles. This would prove to be simultaneously the capstone of Wilson’s career as a public servant, and also his bitterest disappointment in politics. Wilson argued forcefully for a peace that would not unduly punish Germany, as he said on March 27, 1919, “Our greatest error would be to give {Germany} powerful reasons for one day wishing to take revenge. Excessive demands would most certainly sow the seeds of war.” (P.566) In hindsight, Wilson sounds quite prophetic, but he was never able to convince French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau of these ideas, and Clemenceau helped steer the Treaty into an instrument of revenge against Germany. 

At home, Wilson was unable to convince the Senate to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. There were moments when it seemed like ratification was possible, but Wilson collapsed while on a speaking tour in September of 1919, and suffered a very serious stoke a week later. The stroke left Wilson incapacitated, and Berg writes, “A month passed during which no government official, not even a secretary, saw the President of the United States.” (P.649) Wilson’s physical incapacity now limited the influence he could personally have over the Senate, and his stubborn personality meant that he refused to accept any modifications to the Treaty. Ultimately, the Treaty of Versailles was not ratified by the United States Senate, which meant that the United States never joined the League of Nations.

A continuing question of history is, how much power and influence did Wilson’s second wife Edith have after Wilson’s stroke? Some historians have called her “America’s first female president.” I think that’s a bit of an overstatement-Edith was certainly controlling access to the president, but she wasn’t making policy decisions totally on her own. During Wilson’s health crisis, much of the government’s work simply came to a standstill, due to Wilson’s inability to do the work the presidency required. 

Woodrow Wilson left the presidency in 1921 a broken man, and he died in 1924, less than three years after leaving office. Wilson remained a stanch supporter of the League of Nations until he died, and still held out hope that somehow the United States would join.

Wilson was something of a contradiction, an intellectual academic who nevertheless inspired huge crowds with his soaring oratory, a humble Presbyterian with a self-effacing sense of humor who held many grudges, and kept few friends throughout his life. Wilson helped to shape the modern presidency, as he was the first president since Thomas Jefferson to deliver his State of the Union speeches in person, and he held the first presidential press conference. His presidency was full of accomplishments, and the Progressive policies that he favored continue to shape the United States today, more than one hundred years after he was first elected to the presidency.

Berg’s Wilson is a massive tome, some 750 pages of text, not including footnotes and index, so it is a hefty reading commitment. But along the way you’ll get to encounter a truly fascinating man. Berg quotes liberally from Wilson’s letters and papers, so you get a real sense of his personality, in all its complexity.

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