A. Scott Berg's biography of Woodrow Wilson pales next to a recent work by John Milton Cooper, Jr.
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Berg also writes as if he has his eye on the movies. He begins his biography, after a summation of Wilson’s life and times, with Wilson’s most glorious moment, Paris’s tremendous reception of the President in December 1918, just after the war, which millions credited America with winning: “They crossed the Seine... to the Place de la Concorde, into which 100,000 people had jammed, hoping for a glimpse of ‘Meester Veelson.’ The noise grew deafening, as the carriages proceeded through the Rue Royale, and the crowd kept roaring the phrase overhead in electric lights on a sign that spanned the street – ‘VIVE WILSON.’ ” It is a particularly cinematic moment, but some biographers would be more leery of reporting grandiose news accounts as if they themselves had been there.Skip to next paragraph
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Both Berg and Cooper have rich material to work with in examining the life of Woodrow Wilson. Wilson was born in Virginia just before the Civil War and lived in Georgia during that war, the son and grandson of Presbyterian ministers, with Scotch roots. A graduate of Princeton, academia, not the ministry, attracted him; he was a constant learner, a dyed-in-the-wool teacher, confident, and usually patient with the less intelligent (just about everybody else he encountered); at age 13 he “told his father that he had experienced a ‘Eureka!’ moment, that he had ‘found it’ at last. When his father inquired what he had found, Tommy [as he was known as a boy] replied, ‘A mind, sir. I’ve found I have an intellect and a first-class mind.’”
Though he was educated and inspired by democratic ideals, he never attempted to get over his racism. “‘Both by inheritance and absorption,’” a newspaper editorial observed during the presidential campaign of 1912, “‘he has most of the prejudices of the narrowest type of Southern white people against the Negro.’” Politically, the racism manifested itself in indifference; he never lifted a finger to provide justice to people of color. He allowed a cabinet member to implement Jim Crow laws in Federal Government offices and while he had argued for equal rights for minorities in the Treaty of Versailles, he turned a cold shoulder to the hundreds of thousands returning black soldiers he had sent to Europe to fight; in his own country, he failed to halt lynching and other racial oppression.
Before he became president, he was an academic superstar, writing comprehensive histories of American government and the Constitution; he published articles in major magazines, gave riveting speeches and talks, became a professor at Princeton; in 1902, he became president of the college, transforming the reputed “country club” for rich boys into a prestigious institution. His endeavors were so successful he stood out on the national scene and New Jersey political fixers fixed their sights on him for governor with a hope that in two years he would be ready to take on President Taft. He was and did, though in the 1912 election he had to challenge a revived and belligerent Theodore Roosevelt as well and in the most competitive three-party race in presidential history defeated the former presidents.
After his inauguration in March of 1913, the Progressive Democrat hit the ground running, having prepared for the political season the way teachers prepare for coming semesters. He boldly took advantage of all his opportunities. Despite his mild looks and manners, he was a bulldog on legislation. When he entered politics as a player rather than a scholar in 1910, he was scorned by politicians as a “schoolboy,” but he had such vigor and unconventional directness that he quickly achieved huge legislative changes: “‘After dealing with college politicians,’ Wilson explained, ‘I find that the men with whom I am dealing with now seem like amateurs.’” In his first term as president he remarkably pushed through legislation that created the Federal Reserve Bank, income tax, the Federal Trade Commission and the first federal law regulating child-labor. On the other hand, with all the power and influence he was able to harness, he resisted any federal action on women’s suffrage until after the women voters of the Western states helped reelect him in 1916.