DOES THIS PRESIDENT sound familiar? A man skulking in a "shrouded, secretive White House," aloof from his Cabinet, beholden only to his chief aide who serves as alter ego and bully-boy in cynical deals for total power. A belicose commander-in-chief who permits the distant genocide of women and children, and whose insecurity is so great that antiwar protesters are rounded up by his goons and imprisoned by his judges. A paranoid whose "enemies list," maintained by a grossly servile FBI, comprises some 2 million Americans; a masochist who, after his final humiliation, proclaims himself a martyr and heads West on a flight into fantasy; a liar and deceiver whose legacy, among the electorate, is mass "detestation of public life."

Yes, we've heard it all before -- but not in connection with that hero of peace and progressivism, Woodrow Wilson. The 28th president is now the target of a reassessment by Walter Karp, the deadliest of political sharpshooters, and if poor Wilson's reputation survives this onslaught, it must be made of stuff harder than diamonds.

Karp's book is subtitled The Story of Two Wars Which Altered Forever the Political Life of the American Republic (1890-1920). Its theme is the perversion of our free republican principles by the Spanish-American War, which gave us imperialism, and by World War I, which gave us fascism. Both these foreign entaglements were unnecessary and inexcusable, in Karp's view; they were forced upon us by "the powerful and the privileged." The first war was brought about by an unholy alliance of Republican and Democratic bosses, in order to distract the American middle class from the threat ot labor revolt on the one hand and the rise of monopolistic capital combinations on the other. Apparently the prime villian was President William McKinley, who intended that the white heat of conflict would weld the loosening nuts and bolts of American society into a tight, efficiently running industrial machine. In the second case, America went to the aid of the Allies solely because of the "vainglory" of President Wilson, who wanted to create out of the ashes of war an imperishable monument of himself as peacemaker, namely, the League of Nations.

This is a controversial thesis, to say the least, and Karp strains mightily to convince us that McKinley and Wilson were despicable, cold and crafty as his research would indicate. A word of caution: although he has a superb gift for legal analysis and gives every appearance of being an honest scholar, his sources (mainly secondary) are cited only once or twice a page. Often that reassuring little figure at the end of a paragraph refers only to an unimportant quotation half way through; we have to take the rest of the information on trust. Also the author's compulsion to present a flawless argument leads him, perhaps inadvertently, into minor distortions of fact. Thus we are told that McKinley sent the Maine to Havana in January 1898, and that McKinley put hawkish Commodore Dewey in charge of the fleet that took the Philippines. Actually the first act was that of Secretary of the Navy John Long (whom Karp elsewhere describes as " a weak, stuffy hole in the air"), and the second was ingeniously foisted upon the president by Assistant Secretary Theodore Rossevelt. Karp correctly shows that the Spanish-American War was no overnight phenomenon drummed up by the yellow press, but a deliberate piece of American strategy, many years in the making. If he underestimates the role of expansionists like Roosevelt and overestimates McKinley's "matchless guile," he is nevertheless brilliant in tracing the seeds of war to the very grass roots of party politics.

Passing rapidly over the years between 1900 and 1912, Karp introduces Woodrow Wilson as "the first American President to look upon the United States of America as a stepping-stone to personal greatness," a man with "a hunger for glory so exclusively self-regarding" that he would, within the next eight years, betray all his countrymen, and indeed free men everywhere. Nothing that follows serves to mitigate this grim view -- the argument, indeed, is so logically worked out that one wonders, if history is as neat as all that, if Wilson wasn't just occasionally capable of being reasonable and altruistic.

Yet the evidence is certainly overwhelming that he craved a war -- any war -- in order to escape his promises of progressive reform at home. Having failed, after flagrant provocation, to stir up a conflict with Mexico, he eagerly looked to the great war in Europe, showing from the fall of 1914 onward such partiality toward the Allies as to make the United States a belligerent in all but name. Tacitly approving Britian's illegal policy of a "starvation blockade" of Germany, Wilson wielded his immense diplomatic power to stop Germany's retaliatory attacks upon neutral shipping, even when those vessels bristled with American arms. He actually encouraged U.S. citizens to sail to them, thus using American flesh as a sort of sacrosanct armor to protect murderous cargo. His motive, according to Karp, was to so ingratiate himself with the Allies that they would call upon him to preside over the great postwar conference; thus "Wilson would become the first man in history to bring the world peace everlasting." When it became apparent that perverted neutrality itself was not enough to guarantee such an invitation, Wilson preached, wheedled and finally tricked a reluctant America into the war.

Nobody can read Karp's analysis of Wilson's cold-blooded megalomania without feeling many sympathetic chills. Yet the author's very vehemence, as chapter follows chapter, becomes wearisome, even suspect: surely these damning facts would be more effective if allowed to speak for themselves? Karp cannot resist loading his prose with abusive adjectives and adverbs; the effect is of a man stuttering with passion; one's impulse is to back away. Also hs has the polemicist's tendency to repeat himself. Wilson cannot send any note to Germany without it being described as "harsh and hostile"; the barbarism "hopefully" crops up again and again (on page 229, three times in three successive sentences); contemptuous references to "the powerful and the privileged" -- turn-of-the-century America's ruling oligarchy of monopolistic conservatives -- run like a leitmotif throughout the text. (It is amusing to note that Karp nevertheless accepted a grant from the fortune of the very powerful and privileged former senator Simon Guggengeim). Yet he grows eloquent, even elegiac, in his final pages describing the horrors of wartime repression at home, and we close his book with a sigh for "that old America that was free and is now dead."