He was the only US president to spend most of his adult life in academic groves. He was the ultimate public intellectual. He was both rational and emotional, loner and populist, introspective and inspirational. He employed his second-tenor voice to reach the highest notes of morality and idealism, daring to dream of a perfect world and then, thwarted in his effort to win American entry into an international forum to assure lasting peace, refused to compromise to win merely a better world.
He moved the country from isolationism to interventionism and then to internationalism. The reception he received as the first president to visit Europe (and the first person to receive an honorary degree from the Sorbonne in the university’s seven centuries) was astonishing, but so was the challenge he faced: negotiating first with hard-faced and hard-headed Europeans, those moved by realpolitik and not romance, immune to his charms and contemptuous of his idealism, and then tangling with American politicians determined to ruin his plans — and his presidency.
Woodrow Wilson’s remarkable rise, the swiftest in all of our history, was matched by his even more remarkable fall, all accomplished in one crowded decade. He arguably has no equal — not Washington, not Lincoln, not Kennedy — in the aspirations he let loose in the tiniest villages of Europe and across the globe.
In his breathtaking biography of the 28th president, A. Scott Berg argues that it was Wilson — not Theodore Roosevelt, the subject of so much contemporary fascination, nor even his distant cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, still considered the standard against which all modern presidents are evaluated — who laid the foundation for the 20th century, his New Freedom the base on which was built the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier, and the Great Society.
Having endured bruising campus battles as president of Princeton, Wilson decamped for real politics. New Jersey boss James Smith Jr. was skeptical, dismissing Wilson as “that Presbyterian priest.” But the very inexperience and moralism of Wilson provided him with enormous appeal, so much so that party chieftains embraced a 53-year-old who had never run for anything and nominated him for governor of a state where graft and government were synonymous.
Wilson was thus well positioned for a White House campaign: a Southern-born Democrat with support in the Northeast and West. But even after nomination he was, as Berg put it, “the least-known important figure in American politics.”
But for all that, Berg gives Wilson a fresh look, restoring him to the place he occupied — the idealist in politics — before recent biographers wrote him off as a helpless, hapless, hopeless romantic, a starry-eyed suitor, a recondite racist, a stubborn old fool, and a mentally disabled one at that. Plus no friend of a free press. (In fact, Berg’s chapters liken stages of Wilson’s career to biblical movements, with titles like “Ascension,’’ “Armageddon,’’ and “Resurrection.’’)
He was, of course, all of those things, for all US presidents have been men of parts. But the whole of Wilson blares through these 818 pages, and Berg portrays him not so much as a misguided mystic or hidebound late-day Confederate as (mostly) an admirable crusader for progressive ideas and a exemplar of the highest values of his country.
Theodore Roosevelt thought of the early Wilson as “merely a less virile me” — later he would despise Wilson with unalloyed passion — but TR’s first impression wasn’t quite right. Wilson was both more (intellectual) and less (tolerant, particularly on race) than his predecessor once removed.
He resisted war while Roosevelt agitated for it during the Lusitania crisis, a period when the widowed president was distracted by love letters intended to win the hand of Edith Galt, some of which he drafted more than once as the world burned. Perhaps the most astonishing part of the life Berg sets out is the amount of time, particularly during times of crisis, Wilson spent going for a car ride or a round of golf or to a show.
In truth, Wilson was an effective war president, ruling, as Berg puts it, “mostly with his rhetoric.” His language was clear, persuasive, inspiring, elevating World War I from a major-power conflict to a struggle for values, particularly in his splendid War Message and his Fourteen Points initiative.
Then he went to France to fight for his League of Nations. “Never,” said John Maynard Keynes, “had a philosopher held such weapons wherewith to bind the princes of this world.” Day by day the high hopes unraveled, the peace conference moving from high principle to low compromise, Wilson resisting, then capitulating.
Back home he burrowed in for the fight of his life. He plunged into what Berg called Washington’s “most bitter debate since the Civil War,” not understanding how isolated he had become and discounting the effect on his leadership of spiking prices (especially food), booming unemployment, and the outbreak of strikes and race riots.
He lost the consent of the governed and failed to recoup it during a desperate public campaign that left him and his dreams broken. Wilson had used himself up and after a stroke spent the remainder of his term as a near invalid while Edith, now his wife, and his doctor perpetrated what Berg calls “the greatest conspiracy that had ever engulfed the White House.”
We have long known the truth and now, thanks to Berg, we know a more fully rounded Wilson, not only the frail man, unshaven for six weeks, who huddled in the White House but also the brilliant beacon of idealism that he was at his prime, adumbrating an America at its prime he could have scarcely imagined.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.