Woodrow Wilson may have been the most perplexing person ever to occupy the Oval Office, and he is almost certainly one of the greatest. The first person born in the South to serve as president after the Civil War, he was a devout Presbyterian, a leading American historian who became president of his alma mater, Princeton, and a progressive governor of New Jersey. Even if he had not led the United States to victory in World War I, he would still have an impressive presidential record for his peacetime accomplishments.
Yet Wilson's legacy has been shadowed by his failures -- particularly his unwillingness to compromise on issues of great importance. For instance, at Princeton he fought an unsuccessful battle to break the social grip of student's "eating clubs." Then, in the greatest disappointment of his life, the Treaty of Versailles, which also created the League of Nations, ran headlong into Republican opposition in the U.S. Senate. Wilson suffered a stroke and became paralyzed after a frenetic nationwide campaign for ratification, but in time the Senate would in fact defeat the treaty. In both instances, Wilson left behind broken relationships and perhaps undue collateral damage because of his rigid views. The fact that they were high-minded and correct goals makes his failures more poignant.
Telling the story of his life, his visionary ideas and his legacy has occupied four generations of American historians. But until now, no one has gotten him quite right. Not until A. Scott Berg with his landmark biography, "Wilson." In a meticulously researched and generously written new biography, we have an appraisal of the 28th president that is neither diminishing nor hagiographic. Rather, Berg, one of the pre-eminent biographers of our time, has placed Wilson in his correct place in our nation's history. In many ways, he accomplishes for Wilson what David McCullough's biographies of Harry Truman and John Adams did for their subjects: It secures Wilson's place among the top tier of American presidents.
And it comes at a very important moment, though Berg could never have imagined that the timing would be such as it is, since a biography of this magnitude takes years to research and write. Barack Obama is a man much like Woodrow Wilson. Ivy League-educated, a former professor and an advocate for reform, he has run into the same sort of solid opposition in Congress that tormented Wilson. Some have accused him of being unwilling to compromise. In his first term, Wilson shepherded passage of the income tax, the Federal Reserve, anti-trust legislation among others. He nominated the first Jewish member of the Supreme Court, Louis D. Brandeis. Obama, of course, secured passage of landmark health care reform and appointed the first Hispanic member of the court, Sonia Sotomayer. The primary difference, of course, is that we know that Wilson's major domestic achievements have endured; the jury is still out on the results of health care reform.
Berg relates Wilson's significant role in the passage of the suffrage amendment that gave women the vote in 1920. His principal argument was that our soldiers were giving their lives in the cause of freedom on the battlefields of Europe, should not all Americans be entitled to vote? His enthusiasm for equal rights only went so far, however. He rejected appeals to integrate the armed forces with African Americans. And he opposed desegregating Washington, D.C., practicing what was then called "genteel racism." During his second term, some of the worst racial confrontations in American history occurred and lynchings were frequent.
Wilson is Berg's fourth major biography, following studies of book editor Maxwell Perkins, movie producer Samuel Goldwyn and aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh (for which he received the Pulitzer Prize). As with the earlier books, the stage on which his characters lead their lives is a grand one indeed. There was a moment when Wilson was probably the most revered man in the western world, in the heady days of 1919 when he arrived in Europe to negotiate peace terms with Germany. By the end of that year, he was bedridden and in seclusion at the White House, and his second wife, Edith Wilson, served essentially as president.
The story of Wilson's final years was beautifully told nearly a half-century ago by Gene Smith in his bestselling book "When the Cheering Stopped." Berg writes that he read this book in high school and has been fascinated by Wilson ever since. Such was my case as well. Now, with A. Scott Berg's "Wilson," we know the whole story of this man who had a profound effect on the history of our nation and the world.
By A. Scott Berg
G.P. Putnam's Sons
818 pp., $40