By Edward Cuddihy
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
It has been 100 years since Woodrow Wilson swore the sacred oath on his wife, Ellen’s small Bible to uphold the Constitution of the United States and thus became the nation’s 28th president.
So much has changed in those hundred years, and so little is different.
This son of a Presbyterian minister and the first Southerner to gain the White House since before the Civil War, Wilson was the consummate Washington outsider when he accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination. He went on to win the 1912 election with less than 45 percent of the popular vote.
The sitting president, William Howard Taft, and the raucous former president, Theodore Roosevelt, split the Republican vote, leaving the door open for this political gatecrasher.
Wilson, known as Tommy when growing up in Georgia and the Carolinas, dropped his first name and became Woodrow Wilson, the accomplished student of government and political science by the time he returned to his alma mater, Princeton, at age 34.
Despite his prodigious writing about government – especially the inadequacy of the American system – and his recognized gift for oratory and debate, few would have thought Washington, no less the White House, would be in Wilson’s future.
In 1902, he was elected president of Princeton, a small all-male college. During his decade at Princeton, he guided, cajoled and finally transformed the college of New Jersey from “the most agreeable and aristocratic country club in America” into one of the nation’s leading universities. Most would have expected Wilson, his wife and their three daughters to live out a long life in the idyllic setting of then-rural New Jersey.
But when offered the challenge of cleaning up the New Jersey statehouse, he accepted the nomination for governor out of a mix of public duty and ambition. Even then, no one could have predicted the perfect alignment of the stars, but within two years, the college professor was president of the United States.
Wilson promised the nation he would work tirelessly on a domestic agenda. He had little experience in world affairs, but what would that matter? In 1912, America was mired in one of its deep isolationist valleys. “It would be the irony of fate,” he confided to a friend, “if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs.”
This is the setting for A. Scott Berg’s major new biography of the man who would lead the U.S. into World War I and become revered throughout much of Western Europe. International events have a way of derailing the best-laid plans of our presidents.
Berg’s Wilson is the intellectual idealist who would attempt to badger the fractious Western Allies into shaping a treaty to end all wars, a just peace, a peace without victory. While Wilson championed the League of Nations, an idea 40 years ahead of its time, he would prove no match for the power-grabbing pack of wily and victorious European leaders.
For six months, while Wilson was absorbed in bringing peace and prosperity to all of Europe and consequently to America, the Allies – especially France, Great Britain and Italy – had their sights set on revenge, retribution, territory and booty.
Wilson was the first president to thrust the United States into a position of world leadership, but he returned home in triumph to face a hostile Republican-led Congress determined that this Democrat and Washington usurper would fail. He was the first president to leave the territorial United States while in office, and no president since has dared to leave Washington unattended for so lengthy a period.
While world leaders hailed Wilson’s work as the beginning of a new world order, the Senate, led by Massachusetts Republican Henry Cabot Lodge, refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, which officially ended World War I. The Senate also blocked approval of United States entry into the League of Nations.
This was one of the 20th century’s bitterest political fights. It went on and on and culminated in Wilson suffering a massive stroke while crisscrossing the nation, stumping for the treaty and the league. That night in Pueblo, Colo., in effect, marked the end of his presidency.
Berg has written some notable biographies, among them the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Charles Lindbergh, but this book with its powerful storyline may even surpass his Lindbergh.
President Wilson has fallen into one of those strange and inexplicable historical black holes. Wildly popular in his time, cheered throughout the world as a leader of his age, Woodrow Wilson has been largely forgotten in 21st century America.
He could claim an impressive string of progressive domestic accomplishments, including today’s Federal Reserve system, child labor laws, an eight-hour work day, a graduated income tax and a universal draft, which ended the age-old system of the rich paying the poor to go to war in their place. But his domestic achievements were overshadowed 20 years later by the president of the century, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
And his war, at the time known as the war to end all wars, would become a mere prelude to the most destructive and catastrophic conflict the world ever has seen. By the time the United Nations headquarters was dedicated in Manhattan, few would recall that President Wilson not only envisioned such a world body but actually wrote the charter for its predecessor.
Scott Berg is not the first author to recognize that Woodrow Wilson’s name rightly belongs on the list of great American presidents. But this hugely important biography of the larger-than-life president comes at a time when Wilson’s image is ripe for resuscitation.
After a hundred years, the historical baggage has been jettisoned. The divisive politics of the day, all carefully documented long ago, have shed their partisan coloring. The hatred of outsiders who dare to dream of success in Washington has been ameliorated by decades of new hatreds.
So now, only the facts remain to be exhumed and reassembled. The newspaper morgues containing the first cut at history are easier than ever to mine. The thousands of intimate letters, the diaries and the personal notes – some of them only recently discovered – now are largely public documents and add vitality to the copious magazine articles written by the president and his detractors.
What was needed to resurrect this nearly forgotten president was the deft hand of a master biographer and a decade of painstaking and meticulous research.
Berg supplied those missing elements and added his gifted narrative style, which somehow maintains its flow through more than 700 pages. Threaded masterfully through the political story is a subplot of passion, love, joy and depression. Never far from the adoring crowds is this huge intellect, always cognizant of his disintegrating body.
This fine piece of writing is not only highly entertaining, it fills a void in the history of the U.S. presidency and may well become the definitive Wilson biography of our era.
Wilson’s final year in the White House became known as the year of the invisible president. It is unfathomable today, but for the year beginning in September 1919, the executive branch of the government was run secretively by the president’s second wife, Edith; his physician, Adm. Cary Grayson; and his chief of staff, Joseph Tumulty.
In retrospect, although he lived until 1924, many say Wilson’s life ended that night in 1919 in Colorado. Today, we know what the American public did not know: A massive stroke had left the president with weakened intellectual faculties, partially paralyzed and deeply depressed, alternately planning to resign or to seek a third term.
Berg does not judge those final years. He carefully lays out the facts, quoting and paraphrasing the president’s confidants, his intimate friends, his enemies and the impartial observers of the day.
Berg lets the reader decide: Was Woodrow Wilson a president whose failure revealed itself in final years of bitterness and despair, or was Woodrow Wilson one of the nation’s great presidents whose life ended five years before death took him?
By A. Scott Berg
818 pages, $40
Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.