Woodrow Wilson has had, by some measures, a rocky start to the 21st century. First, his legacy of interventionism — of making the world safe for democracy — was hijacked and dragged through the sands of Mesopotamia by a band of neocons, and next, he attracted the obsessive interest of Glenn Beck, who compares him (and not favorably) to Adolf Hitler. On the left, Wilson is — as he has been increasingly since the 1960s — roundly condemned for his retrograde positions on civil rights (against) and civil liberties (at best, indifferent).
But at the same time, the past decade or two has seen a rolling reconsideration of the man and his presidency, and both seem to be faring well. Despite the unwelcome attention of Beck and others, and despite his manifest failings, Wilson has maintained his standing in the upper (if not the uppermost) tier of U.S. presidents, at least according to the arbiters of such things — professional historians.
More significant, recent books have helped correct some of the caricatures that clung to him even in his own time: Wilson the schoolmaster, Wilson the moralist, Wilson the inflexible idealist. None of these epithets pack quite the punch they once did, thanks to subtly shaded portrayals by Louis Auchincloss, H.W. Brands and others — most notably John Milton Cooper Jr., whose masterful biography of Wilson, published in 2009, reflects an unrivaled expertise on the subject.
Why all this interest in Wilson? Granted, it falls well short of a vogue — unlike, say, Theodore Roosevelt or Harry Truman, Wilson is something of an acquired taste — but taken together, these signals suggest that Wilson, a full century after his first inauguration, remains relevant. As one of the first truly modern presidents, whose creations (the Federal Reserve ) and ambitions (collective security through a League of Nations) still help determine our national direction, he is a figure of enduring importance — and a certain ambiguity. There has never been much settled wisdom about him.
In part, that is because some of the tensions that plagued his presidency — particularly the one between principle and pragmatism in U.S. foreign policy — are perpetual and defy resolution. It is also because the man himself was something of a cipher: “There has been no great man,” an acquaintance of Wilson observed, “of whom so much has been written, but of whom personally so little has been correctly known.”
The latest attempt to assess — or really, to firmly establish — his significance is “Wilson,” by A. Scott Berg, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1998 biography of Charles Lindbergh. Berg likens his approach to impressionism, with its use of “thousands of dabs of paint,” and here he paints a vivid tableau. Indeed, color abounds in this book: Railcars are “furnished with big easy chairs, footstools, and cushions, in rose brocade”; people drink “high tea with yellow Devonshire cream”; Edith Wilson’s bedroom is “decorated in ivory with a pink bedspread.” But the picture Berg is most interested in rendering is, in a way, abstract: the interior Wilson. “I have never seen a book that captured the emotional side of the man,” Berg said in a recent interview. “I wanted to do that book.”
He writes with sensitivity and acuity about that side of Wilson, without indulging in cheap psychologizing. (None other than Sigmund Freud failed this test; in a collaboration with the diplomat William Bullitt, a Wilson detractor, Freud put his name to a much and rightly maligned study of Wilson’s personality.) “Beneath [Wilson’s] stern ministerial appearance,” Berg writes, “churned a turbulent emotional life.” Wilson himself conceded as much. “I have the uncomfortable feeling that I am carrying a volcano about with me,” he told his first wife, Ellen. “My salvation is in being loved. . . . There surely never lived a man with whom love was a more critical matter than it is with me!”
After Ellen’s death in August 1914, he sank into a depression, emerging the following spring to begin what Berg calls “the most ardent chase of Wilson’s life”: his courtship of Edith Bolling Galt. In the months before marrying her, Berg recounts, Wilson wrote her “two, even three love letters a day, some requiring more than one draft,” even as Germany stepped up its campaign of submarine warfare.
None of this, however, is new information; nor does Berg subject it to new interpretation. That is one of the disappointments of a book that promises, according to its publisher, to “fill in missing pieces of Wilson’s character and cast new light on his entire life.”
This would be a tall order under any circumstance, but Berg is simply too enamored of Wilson to provide a balanced appraisal. As a teenager in the 1960s, Berg hung a picture of Wilson on his bedroom wall. (Surely this was the mark of a future biographer. The kids with the black-light Iron Butterfly posters became burnouts and eventually bond traders.) Wilson, Berg recently recalled, was one of his “gods.” It is therefore unsurprising that “Wilson” is an admiring, at times adoring, portrait of the man. “Beholden to nobody, [Wilson] had risen to his position through brainpower,” Berg writes in the book’s introduction. “Wedding the complexity of his intellect with the simplicity of his faith, placing principles before politics, he followed his conscience, never first checking public opinion.” This is less an assessment than an accolade, and one of many.
Berg is not uncritical of Wilson’s biggest lapses — his tolerance of segregation, his suppression of civil liberties and his “highly questionable” actions (or paralytic inaction) after the stroke he suffered in 1919, during his grueling campaign to win Senate approval of the League of Nations. But there is never any doubt that Wilson, in this telling, is a hero of the classical sort, martyred in his quest for world peace and brotherhood. Berg’s decision to endow each chapter with a biblical title (“Ascension,” “Resurrection”) and a passage of scripture (“And they spit upon him, and tooke the reed, and smote him on the head”) raises the question of whether he sees Wilson as a Christ figure or merely as a man with a Christ complex — as Freud, Georges Clemenceau and other contemporaries saw him.
The real problem here is not that Berg asks us to behold a Great Man — for there are plenty of reasons to regard Wilson as such — but that he supplies few tools to gauge the man’s Greatness. “Wilson,” Berg writes, “articulated ideas that would crystallize into the foreign policy that would extend through the next century.” This is incontrovertible, but Berg has so little to say about America’s role in, and view of, the world that it becomes hard to appreciate the ways in which the Wilson administration did (or did not) mark a point of departure. Berg asserts that Wilson brought “an abandonment of isolationism.” Yet neither Roosevelt nor William Howard Taft, Wilson’s two immediate predecessors, can be characterized as isolationists; Taft, in fact, propounded the idea of peace through international arbitration well before Wilson conceived of his League of Nations. Wilson effected a meaningful shift but not a clean break.
Similarly, Berg asserts that Wilson was not an effete, aloof intellectual but “an unexpectedly evolved political animal, with a tough hide and sharp claws.” Here, again, his contention is right, but his support is thin. Berg misses important opportunities to show just how hard and how shrewdly Wilson fought to advance his pre-war agenda. He almost entirely overlooks Wilson’s successful battle, in the face of fierce opposition, for military preparedness. And he breezes through the legislative struggle to create the Federal Reserve system — a signal achievement that, as Cooper explains in his far more enlightening account, required Wilson’s utmost persistence and persuasiveness, plus a good deal of “wrangling, coddling, arm-twisting, lobbying, and threatening.”
Wilson, famously, loved to lecture; more than any president before him (and perhaps since), he saw his role as educator in chief. It would not disappoint him to think that his life might be instructive, even eight decades after his passing. But in the end, “Wilson,” despite its scope, fails to convey the lessons it most wishes to impart. Which is really too bad, because Wilson — and particularly his belief that even a professor sometimes has to roll up his sleeves and bare his knuckles — might have something to teach the progressive who now occupies the Oval Office.
By A. Scott Berg
Putnam. 818 pp. $40