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.
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Woodrow Wilson

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.

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.” 

Berg's biography of Wilson is structured in chapters labeled “Ascension” to “Resurrection.” Quotes from the original King James Bible introduce each chapter, an attempt perhaps to convey the religious side of the 28th President. In the end, the book leaves it to the reader to judge the character of the man who may rank as the most intellectually courageous American president.


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