Review: 'Wilson' biography brings important president to life
WILSON. By A. Scott Berg. 832 pages. Putnam. $40.
A. Scott Berg's 800-plus page biography "Wilson" is no tome of dry statistics and tiresome detail. It is a work of illuminating, sympathetic insight into a man of fierce intelligence. Wilson was principled, imperious, eloquent, overbearing at times, flawed and romantic. In other words, all too human.
Berg concentrates less on the politics and more on the man. Wilson's beginnings were not grandiose. Born in Virginia, the son of the Rev. Joseph Wilson, young Woodrow spent his formative years in the South, eventually graduated from Princeton, then studied law at the University of Virginia where he did not finish his degree but did pass the bar. He practiced law for a while but considered it "drudgery," finally returning to academia and earning a Ph.D. in political science and history from Johns Hopkins.
Meanwhile, he courted Ellen Axson, a Southern girl, flooding her with ardent love letters. A gifted artist, she gave up a career and married Wilson.
Going on to teach at Bryn Mawr and Wesleyan, Wilson eventually returned to Princeton where he was elected Chair of Jurisprudence and Political Economy and where he wrote books on government and politics. Ascending to the presidency of Princeton University, his tenure was fraught with disagreement as he strived to introduce better teaching methods and make other campus improvements. His goal was to transform Princeton from a Country Club of social elites into a school of serious study. He met with fierce opposition.
Meanwhile, his wife, concerned about the stress and Wilson's chronic ailments, insisted he take a vacation. So Wilson sailed off, solo, to Bermuda. There he was introduced to Mrs. Peck, a charming hostess who entertained friends from many walks of life, including Mark Twain. It was said at the time that they had "a dalliance."
Upon his return, Wilson accepted the invitation from New Jersey's Democratic Party bosses to run for governor in 1910. His "silver tongue" served him well and he won by a landslide. No puppet, he wasted little time in instituting much-needed reform, succeeding so well in his new role that, by 1912, he was in the White House, quite a feat. Berg points out that Wilson fashioned his presidency on a "Jeffersonian belief in the power of the people" and the duty to see "the populace as a whole." He wanted to "level the playing field." He was worried about "the concentration of money power in the hands of the few."
His priorities changed drastically in the summer of 1914 as war was declared in Europe. One shock was compounded by another: his beloved wife Ellen, 54, lay dying. Berg tells of Wilson holding her hand as she slept while penning with his free hand messages to European heads of State. He dealt with his grief by dealing with the crisis in Europe and the ramifications it would have at home. No hawk, Wilson wanted to keep the U.S. neutral.
At the same time, there were serious domestic challenges, including anti-segregation protests, problems with the Ku Klux Klan and the growing call for women's suffrage. In May 1915, the Lusitania, on its way from New York to England, was torpedoed. More than 1,000 were lost, including many Americans.
The drums of war were sounding in the U.S. Wilson resisted, hoping for a diplomatic solution. Former president Teddy Roosevelt was especially bombastic, saying that Wilson "was yellow all through." By 1916, Wilson, ever the romantic, had married the widow Edith Bolling Galt. He won a second term, and in March 1917, just days after his inauguration, German U-boats sank three American ships.
In early April, with a heavy heart, he asked Congress to declare war. Wilson organized a successful huge military and domestic mobilization effort, appealing to the people for service and self-sacrifice and lecturing businessmen about foregoing "unusual profits." He raised taxes and sold Liberty Bonds to pay for the war.
When Germany was ready to surrender, the harsh terms of the peace accord worried Wilson, who feared they would "denude Germany of everything she had" and sow the seeds for a future war.
In March 1919, the Council of Four met to hammer out the accord and vie for their share of the territorial pie. None were willing to accept Wilson's plea for less draconian measures against the Germans, Berg writes. After many long weeks, a weary Wilson headed home, optimistic that he could convince the American people to support the formation of a League of Nations.
It was a tragic trek. Against the advice of his physician and confidant, Cary Grayson, Wilson traveled 8,000 miles by train throughout the U.S. making speech after speech for the "cause of mankind."
He had mistakenly believed the Senate was with him, but the Republican Party was determined to prevent the U.S. from joining the new institution. Congress failed to ratify the Versailles Treaty, a decision that broke Wilson's heart and his health. Just a few days after his return to Washington, D.C., he had a stroke. Paralyzed on his left side, he remained profoundly impaired until the end of his days. Incredibly, with the help of his wife and those closest to the president, he was able to keep his disability hidden from the public for the rest of his term.
Reviewer Frances Monaco is a writer in Charleston.