Woodrow Wilson: A man for the century

A recent biography of the 28th president paints an image of a man struggling to uphold his ideals in the face of political and personal obstacles.
Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson Credit: Wikipedia

Every decade or so, a political biography revives the name and reputation of a leader from the distant past. This year, A. Scott Berg (author of award-winning biographies of Charles Lindbergh and Samuel Goldwyn) has written such a book. His subject: T. Woodrow Wilson, one of the most under-rated and misunderstood presidents who ever occupied the Oval Office.

As in most presidential biographies where the story arc is well known, Berg’s particular talent is to bring us into the story as if events, like the haggling over the World War I-ending Treaty of Versailles, are happening before our eyes. We learned in American History class that Wilson was a somewhat tragic figure who fought and almost died for an ideal. But Berg gives us a cinematic view of Wilson’s battle to make the League of Nations a plank in the peace treaty, only to see the U.S. Senate — controlled at the time by an obstreperous Republican party intent on his personal defeat at any cost — run the treaty and the League into the ground through a nasty ratification battle.

Substitute "Woodrow Wilson" for the name of recent American presidents in the following sentences to comprehend the enduring legacy of the ideas proposed by this former American president, who traveled to Europe for half a year to end a conflict begun by foreign nations:  

“President X advocates for America’s unique role as a guardian of human rights.”  

“President X believes that America must act to safeguard democracy in foreign lands.”  

“President X advanced an international role for America in environments marred by historical old world conflicts.” 

One can draw a direct line between Wilson and the presidents who followed him. Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Bush and Reagan, all believed that only America could safeguard the principles of self-determination and democracy.

Wilson was famous for his “Fourteen Points,” which formed the basis for the post-World War I peace. The then second-term president was hailed as a savior when he arrived in Europe in December of 1918. Not just a savior of the allies who had fought the Kaiser and his allies in the bloodiest conflict in human history, but literally a savior of mankind. 

The French allowed him passage through the Arc de Triomphe upon his arrival at the Paris peace conference. Italians wept in the streets and hailed him as “The God of Peace.” Yet within a year, Wilson’s work was scuttled by Lloyd George and Clemenceau, his squabbling partners in redrawing the lines of Europe, and caricatured at home as obsessive and inflexible by his domestic opponents, who sought to place rafts of conditions on the Peace Treaty.

Like any massive biography — and this one runs to 743 pages — Berg navigates the challenge of shifting between the broad themes of history and the deep focus of his subject’s personal life. He devotes at least half the book to Wilson’s family life, his tenure and academic career at Princeton, his unique reliance on Edith, his second wife, and on his personal physician, Cary Grayson, particularly during his second term of office.  

While the facts about the stroke that paralyzed Wilson’s left-side are well known, Berg details how the disability limited the increasingly frail president as he toured the country, by rail, in October 1919, trying to sell the American public on the treaty and League of Nations. The also documents how Wilson’s intellectual capacities ebbed and flowed over his final 18-months in office. The second Mrs. Wilson and a handful of trusted advisers ran the White House, keeping the ailing President largely out of view of Congress and the public.

Berg’s language reaches full flower when he describes the pain of Wilson’s incapacity and his struggle to walk again and resume a productive life after his stroke. After watching  a film one evening in the White House — he was the first president to have an in-house theater, powered by a projector gifted to him by actor/director Douglas Fairbanks — Berg shows us the lonely president as he, “shuffled out of the room, to the rhythm of his cane tapping against the marble floor.” 


Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!

Comments:

Posted Sun, May 25, 2:57 p.m. Inappropriate

As any technical writer/editor will tell you, fourteen points are seven too many.

Posted Mon, May 26, 10:40 a.m. Inappropriate

I see Wilson as a prototype for future presidents, but in a rather negative way. He attempted to set up a cult of personality that would block out any criticism. He also expanded on TR's moves to extend the power of the presidency in relation to the other branches of government.

At best he did a mediocre job as a negotiator for the treaty. Back home he had several chances to negotiate compromises on it, but his personal animus toward certain senators derailed those possibilities.

He was an unreconstructed Southerner who acted in as role as president to roll back gains made in DC by blacks. He was also religiously intolerant.

Posted Mon, May 26, 11:40 a.m. Inappropriate

Does the book discuss Wilson's racism? Does it mention how he introduced racial segregation to the Federal government? Before Wilson, even in the most backwoods part of Mississippi, there was one line at the US Post Office and all races stood in it; after Wilson, there were separate windows and separate lines for different races. Before Wilson, government clerks of all races worked side-by-side; Wilson saw to it that the races were separated, "for their own good."

Also, it has always struck me that "self-determination of peoples," which was central to Wilson's redrawing of the map of Europe, was essentially the secessionist cause from our Civil War. Wilson was nine when the Civil War ended; his father and uncles were secessionists and he learned from them.

DTNelson

Posted Mon, May 26, 4:35 p.m. Inappropriate

To answer the question above, the book does detail Wilson's dismal record on Civil Rights. He made a political deal with the southern wing of the Democratic party to allow for segregation of the Post Office and federal civil service on the kind of "separate but equal" grounds that characterized Jim Crow America.

Wilson, Berg explains, was a product of his time and his region in terms of racial views. He did not rise above his southern upbringing in this regard. Paradoxically, he did much to advance the cause of oppressed minorities outside the United States. A sad paradox.

Wilson's progressive agenda is also largely forgotten or at least overwhelmed by his international legacy. A great man; but flawed for sure.

Alex33

Posted Mon, May 26, 8:46 p.m. Inappropriate

Wilson signed the Espionage Act in 1917 and then the Sedition Act of 1918. Think of them as early fore runners of the Patriot act. What these acts accomplished, was to ban individual Americans and the press from speaking or writing out against the government, the war (WWI), or the draft in any form. The government encouraged local citizens to report those who committed such practices and they did. Spend a day at the Washington State Library in Tumwater and browse some of the state newspapers from that time period. You'll be amazed and hopefully outraged.

Another creation of his, the Committee on Public Information (CPI), the executive branch's, ministry of propaganda. The guy was ahead of Goebbels by three decades.

Wilson is the worst President on individual rights and freedoms in our history, Obama and Bush are light weights when put on the scale with Wilson.

After reading this tome of omissions about his domestic policies and their effects. Read the Great Influenza by John Barry, to understand the United States contribution to the world wide spread of influenza.

Djinn

Posted Mon, May 26, 9:03 p.m. Inappropriate

"Every decade or so, a political biography revives the name and reputation of a leader from the distant past."

Add James Madison to the list and boost the time to every six months or so. ;-)

afreeman

Posted Tue, May 27, 10 a.m. Inappropriate

The difference between secessionists and nationalists, of course, is that the South voluntarily became part of the United States. You can hardly say the same about the German, Russian, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian Empires (and, for that matter, about the Allies' empires).

Login or register to add your voice to the conversation.

Join Crosscut now!
Subscribe to our Newsletter

Follow Us »