A. Scott Berg's biography of Woodrow Wilson pales next to a recent work by John Milton Cooper, Jr.
Woodrow Wilson’s presidential years, 1913-1921, were no less politically rancorous than ours and, with the country debating its intervention in the World War then raging in Europe, probably even tougher on the chief executive. Wilson was credited with keeping America out of the war from 1914 to 1916 and then charged with getting us into it in 1917. He spearheaded the Versailles Treaty that set the Allies’ terms with the conquered Germans, and he promoted the League of Nations. Unfortunately, he suffered a stroke while trying to win American citizens’ support of the treaty, and he was too debilitated to use his customary savvy and persistence in that political battle. To his grief and anger (an anger that had almost never flared up before the stroke), he lost.
Even sadder is the fact that Wilson never recovered full command of intellect before dying in 1924.
Only four years ago, the definitive "Woodrow Wilson: A Biography" by John Milton Cooper, Jr. was published. Before Cooper wrote a line he seems to have known Wilson’s character and actions as well as anybody could; in telling Wilson’s life, he moved effortlessly across time, across Wilson’s life and American history, though steadily relating the events chronologically. He dealt with Wilson’s weaknesses and errors straight on and discussed them with all his intelligence and knowledge of the man and his time; he also argued for Wilson’s talents and ethics and weighed the man’s politics and morals.
He suggested that Wilson was on the whole a good man and for the most part, in many areas, an impressive president, but Cooper didn’t shy away from contemporary and later criticisms of Wilson. All the while Cooper used his access to and familiarity with countless records and documents. Cooper expertly quoted from and cited Wilson’s letters and manuscripts and other biographies. Cooper was admiring but critical: curious about the man’s character, appreciative of his qualities, sorry for his faults.
So it’s hard to see the use of Berg’s new biography Wilson. Berg, an experienced biographer (his works include biographies of Katherine Hepburn, Charles Lindbergh, and Samuel Goldwyn), offers readers a lively and readable work. Yet it’s as if Berg has opened a copycat restaurant down the block from a superb restaurant; he serves the same food but doesn’t have Cooper’s authority or nerve.
He lacks what Cooper repeatedly credits Wilson with having: boldness. Berg shies, for instance, from dealing with Wilson’s racism; he mentions particular ugly incidents (which Cooper had already highlighted for him) and then moves on, as if embarrassed that he or we will have to deplore Wilson’s (and America’s) history of prejudice. His fullest discussion of that topic comes halfway through the biography.
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.
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.
He accomplished so much, but many of us remember Wilson instead and unfortunately for his failures: his inability to get the Senate to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and to allow America to join the League of Nations. We remember him for the strokes that disabled him, so able had he been, and for the death of his beloved wife in the second year of his presidency (he was devastated, could hardly bear up) and his remarrying, less than a year and a half later, an attractive younger woman. He loved his wives ardently and was close to his three daughters. In spite of being slow to support women’s suffrage, he relied on women his whole life and respected their opinions and intelligence.
The stroke he suffered while campaigning across the country for popular support of the Treaty of Versailles forced him to cancel the last leg of his tour. He lost his political momentum with the people and so the Republicans, led by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, were able to stall and defeat him. He had lucid periods after the stroke, but for most of the rest of his year and a half in office, he was effectively out of commission. His wife, doctor, and personal secretary controlled access to him and organized which news and duties to give him. He was paralyzed on his left side and for months could hardly walk. Though he had hoped to run for a third term, the Democratic party saw his time had passed and the Republicans trounced the Democrats in the 1920 elections. Wilson retired to his new home in Washington for the next few years, unable to write any of his ambitiously planned works about government and governing. He died in early 1924.
Berg fails to quote at length from the many speeches that he lauds (Wilson wrote his own) or from the vast numbers of his letters (Wilson penned hundreds of adoring letters to his wives). Wilson was a private man except with friends and family; his encounters with colleagues, students and politicians were polite but formal. While he was an idealistic trailblazer for a new world order based on justice and peace, he wasn’t slick; he was earnest and believed if he were properly understood, his listeners would agree with him.
While Berg keeps his biography moving along with occasional cinematic sentimentalizing and simplifying, it’s not clear that he has developed a particular relationship to Wilson. He doesn’t seem fond of his subject. He’s not a defender. It’s as if he’s nervous about the impression Wilson will make on us, so he lays it on a bit thick. Berg’s "Wilson" is finally a biopic in the making. Given a choice of reading, take Cooper’s fine and authoritative "Woodrow Wilson: A Biography," which is still in print.
Bob Blaisdell is the editor of "The Wit and Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln," "World War One Short Stories," and "Selected Federalist Papers."