Review: Wilson


Wilson, A. Scott Berg. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2013.

Summary: A definitive biography of Woodrow Wilson, that traces the arc of his life from boyhood to professor to college president to U.S. president in biblical terms fitting for this deeply religious man.

For many of us, Woodrow Wilson is the somewhat tragic figure associated with the cruel peace of Versailles that sowed the seeds of World War II, the unwillingness of Congress to embrace U.S. entry into the League of Nations, and the secrets of his final year as president, severely impaired by a stroke, protected by his wife and doctor. That is only a small part of the story of this deeply religious man who combined a progressive vision for the nation with great integrity, and, for over six years of his presidency, masterful leadership. It is this fuller story that A. Scott Berg renders in what may be, for our generation, the definitive biography of Wilson.

As befits the staunchly Presbyterian Thomas Woodrow Wilson (he dropped the Thomas in college), Berg uses a biblical narrative arc to trace his life. Berg’s opening chapters capture the pinnacle of Wilson’s “Ascension” as he arrives to acclaim in Europe for peace talks after the Armistice and the “Providence” of his boyhood as a Presbyterian minister’s son.

We then begin with the Eden of college years at Princeton, where he would spend much of his life. There were the Sinai years of wilderness wandering in law school and then graduate studies at Johns Hopkins, followed by several professorship, culminating in his appointment at Princeton, where he and first wife Ellen would spend much of adult life, first as a remarkably popular professor and scholar, and later as an ambitious reforming president. “Advent” covers the politics of the latter part of his presidency, the first signs of arteriosclerosis that would play a significant role latter, and his (likely non-sexual) dalliance with Mrs. Peck.

“Paul” covers his brief tenure as New Jersey governor and presidential campaign. It was striking to me that one of the things that won people to Wilson was that he never “talked down” to people but rather his elevated speech lifted them up. “Disciples” discusses the people Wilson surrounded himself as he prepared for his first term and the reforms he hoped to introduce. We meet Colonel House, who holds no office but was perhaps his most intimate adviser and emissary until their falling out after the peace talks at the end of the war. There is William McAdoo, who will later become his son-in-law. We are also introduced to Dr. Cary Grayson, the military doctor who oversaw the president’s health. “Baptism” covers the beginning of the first term and “Ecclesiastes” the death of Ellen from Bright’s disease and the subsequent courtship and marriage to Edith, who would play such a critical role at the end of his presidency.

“Deliverance” describes his election to a second term on the slogan “he kept us out of the war” and the increasing awareness that it would not be possible for the U.S. to remain neutral. “Armageddon” chronicles the entrance into the war, and how Wilson masterfully mobilizes the nation to move onto a war footing. “Isaiah”and “Gethsemane” give an account of the peace talks and the maneuvering of Clemenceau, Lloyd George, and others to undermine Wilson’s lofty ideals about both the League of Nations and the terms imposed upon Germany. “Passion” tells the tale of Congress’s rejection of his treaty efforts, and the punishing cross-country journey to try to sell the treaty to the people that led to a series of small strokes, culminating into a major one that left Wilson paralyzed on his left side. “Pieta” describes the efforts of Edith, Grayson, and others close to Wilson to sustain his presidency when he was greatly disabled, and the passing of the presidency to the antithesis of Wilson, Warren Harding. The final chapter, “Resurrection” tells the story of his final years, the rise of his reputation in the nation including outliving Harding, and his passing and burial in the National Cathedral.

We have a portrait of a great and tragic figure. He wasn’t perfect. He was a man of integrity who could be unforgiving when trust was betrayed, as he was with some of his closest advisers at the end of his presidency. He was that rare occurrence, an effective scholar-politician. His record on race was spotty, but he advocated for women’s suffrage. He fought big business and pressed tariff reforms that helped many in the country. He resisted the drumbeat of war, and when it could be resisted no longer, led the nation into a disinterested effort to fight a “war to end all wars.” He saw further than others, and fought in vain for the settlement and the institutions that would forestall a renewal of war. His sense of duty, and obligation to the fighting men, led him to efforts that nearly killed him, and did break his health irreparably.

Reading the biography reminded me that the struggle between American self-interest and an expansive view of our role in the world has run throughout our history. It portrayed how much we ask of our presidents, and the wonder that any of them survive their terms in office. A. Scott Berg’s biography of Wilson is a fascinating exploration of what makes for presidential greatness, the shaping of presidential leadership and the perennial conflicts that seem inherent in the American experiment.