NONFICTION: The life of the 28th president, by a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer.
A. Scott Berg said he spent 13 years writing this biography of Woodrow Wilson, perhaps because it took that long to read the mountain of material that his presidency (1912-20) inspired. The book’s bibliography covers five pages of small type, just a reflection of the enormous attention given Wilson from historians to confidantes alike.
Wilson’s story is one of the most remarkable in U.S. history. How this academic with no political experience became the nation’s 28th president at a crucial moment in history is a fairy tale with a tragic ending. It contains all of the elements of fiction: idealism, passion, illness, sorrow and, most of all, luck, which Wilson believed was divine intervention.
Berg then faced the considerable challenge of reinvigorating the thoroughly examined life of a man born in 1856 for 21st-century readers. What new relevance could the biographer of Charles A. Lindbergh, Maxwell Perkins and Katharine Hepburn discover in a complex, political figure who pushed the United States into the superpower position it occupies today?
The answer is, not a heck of a lot. Berg is interested in personalities, not policies. While he readily accepts the conventional evaluation of Wilson the president, Berg focuses on the private life of a conflicted individual whose image of a stern moralizer masked an impulsive romantic with a sexuality that courted disaster.
Wilson’s courtship of his second wife, Edith Galt, included groping her in the presidential limousine, and he pursued a married woman while convalescing in Bermuda when his first wife was still alive. Wilson suffered most of his life with hypertension. It cost him the sight in one eye and led to his debilitating stroke that effectively ended his presidency at its peak after World War I.
Reared by a Presbyterian minister father in Georgia during Reconstruction, Wilson was an unrepentant racist with an inbred sense of privilege who found that the life of a professor fed his intellectual interests and his ego. Berg confronts the racism without apology, but with a tinge of rationalization (prejudice was the norm for the times, he says).
Wilson’s participation in the Paris peace talks was the most significant moment in American diplomacy at the time, paving the way for future presidents, but for the novice at international affairs, it was a failure. At home, Wilson’s stubborn refusal to compromise with his Republican Party opponents killed his dream of a U.S.-led League of Nations.
Berg retells this oft-told history through a sympathetic treatment of Wilson’s tireless, nearly fanatical devotion to his peace terms. Again, the stuff of fiction, the biographer’s version adds nothing revelatory to the events despite its fresher approach.
Bob Hoover is the retired book editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.