The Moralist

"The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made" by Patricia O'Toole

THE MORALIST: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made. By Patricia O’Toole. Simon and Schuster. 483 pages. $35.

This, like any biography of the 28th president, gives rise to a number of questions that remain all too pertinent in 2019. What is the role of government in a democracy? What degree of nationalism is healthy for our country? What degree of internationalism? How much power should rest in the executive? How much in the Congress? And, probably most pointedly for Woodrow Wilson, how does one define a course of action as “right” or “wrong,” and when does a compromise between the two achieve the greater good?

Born in Staunton, Va., in 1856, Thomas Woodrow Wilson was the son of a Presbyterian minister and, on his maternal side, the grandson of another. Possibly dyslexic, Wilson struggled to read into his early teens, but was precocious in spoken English. This and the hours he spent with his father dissecting and improving sermons doubtlessly contributed to the development of an oratorical brilliance that only faltered in later life when he was exhausted, discouraged and seriously ill.

Author Patricia O’Toole carries us briskly through Wilson’s early years; his education at Davidson College, Princeton, the University of Virginia Law School (uncompleted) and Johns Hopkins; his presidency of Princeton; and governorship of New Jersey. Elected to that last office in 1910, it was not quite two years before he became the Democratic candidate for president of the United States. He won in 1912, in part because Theodore Roosevelt had split the Republican vote. Wilson’s movement into the national spotlight was thus quite rapid, but success, O’Toole contends, “was not a good teacher.”

O’Toole offers a thorough picture of Wilson’s early legislative successes as president, including acts to lower tariffs, implement an income tax and create the Federal Reserve, as well as his struggles to deal with revolutionary Mexico. She moves into much higher gear, though, when she begins to describe the long run up to America’s entry into World War I.

Born in the South, Wilson saw the “blackened wreck” that was Columbia, South Carolina, when he moved there in 1870, and this instilled in him a horror of war. Thus, when he took his place in France to broker terms following the close of hostilities, his main goal was to create a League of Nations that would preserve the peace.

But the Republican Congress refused to pass the Treaty of Versailles, which mandated the League, so upon his return to the U.S. Wilson embarked on a long, draining, essentially self-destructive trip across the country in an effort to circumvent Congress and take his case directly to the public. The endeavor collapsed when he suffered a devastating stroke in Wichita, Kan., and was rushed back to Washington.

Beneath her discussion of these events, O’Toole develops the image of a man who believed that all problems could be dealt with successfully by choosing solutions based on moral standards. Unfortunately, what should have been a commendable philosophy of life was undercut by Wilson’s equally firm belief that only he was capable of defining what those standards were. Wilson’s refusal to compromise frequently isolated and boxed him in. O’Toole’s rendering of this recurring, sad drama ignites in the reader a re-examination of the enduring puzzle of how the concept of “morality” is to be applied to the complex world of politics and war.

Wilson was a progressive whose domestic policies were intended to advance the power of the people. In an effort to secure passage of key bills, however, he was forced to segregate the Civil Service, among other things, to satisfy Southern congressmen, without whose support the bills would have gone nowhere. While O’Toole rates him as a good wartime president, it is undeniable that he looked away as free speech rights were curbed and war protesters risked their personal safety. Following his stroke, he allowed his wife and close advisers to stage a dramatic, almost comical cover-up of his condition so he might continue in an office from which he more properly should have resigned.

If Wilson ever admitted to himself that achieving great things or simply moving forward as a public figure involved dirtying his hands, O’Toole does not record it. What she does convey, with searing effectiveness, is Wilson’s descent, as he aged and became sicker, from what may have been a natural, even admirable high-mindedness into a deeply unattractive self-righteousness and stubbornness that served neither him nor his country well.

Woodrow Wilson, as Patricia O’Toole portrays him, is a combination Shakespearean tragic hero and Freudian case study. Intelligent, ambitious and, in his political prime, well able to keep the pragmatic pursuit of his goals within the range of his moral compass, he was in private rather quirky. He frequently took to his bed after an emotional upset and might have spent more time on the golf course than any other president before or after him.

He was most comfortable among intimate advisers such as Col. Edward House and Joseph Tumulty and immediate family. He preferred women to men, especially powerful ones, O’Toole asserts. That, along with a woeful lack of negotiating skills, made him a pawn in the hands of cagey allies like Georges Clemenceau of France, who understandably feared a resurgent Germany on his border, and David Lloyd George who saw “freedom of the seas” as a threat to Britain’s naval strength.

Wilson’s plans for a League of Nations lay at the bottom of their agendas, well behind making Germany pay for the war in treasure, loss of power and the humiliation of officially shouldering responsibility for it. Sadly, Wilson was correct when he predicted that a “vengeful” peace treaty would set up conditions for another war. Just as sadly, his confidence that the League of Nations would mitigate its more egregiously vindictive portions was wildly misplaced.

O’Toole, author of biographies of Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Adams and his circle, presents a balanced view of an influential and idealistic national leader whose rigid personality may have sullied what could have been a more distinguished legacy. Flawed those he was, the world today is still more democratic than it was before Wilson “threw his moral force against imperialism, militarism and autocracy.” Given the present threats posed by governments around the globe, we can only hope that those efforts were not in vain.

Reviewer Rosemary Michaud is a writer in Charleston.