All 45 U.S. presidents have exhibited unusual characteristics and ended up enmeshed in controversies. But before 2016, Woodrow Wilson arguably qualified as the most unusual and controversial of all, with only Abraham Lincoln as a close challenger.

Seasoned biographer Patricia O’Toole is not the first Wilson biographer, and probably will not be the last. But she is the best, in my opinion. Why? To begin with, O’Toole is an extraordinarily gifted stylist. Many biographies of important individuals can feel like a slog to read (including perhaps the biographies I have written). Writing as dynamic as O’Toole’s makes every one of her books a pleasure to read, no matter the number of pages.

The most important value of O’Toole’s new book is its sharp-edged treatment of Wilson — severely critical of his character and policies when appropriate, praising his idealism and persistence when appropriate. Most previous biographies of Wilson border on hagiography, or shrill negativity. Most previous Wilson biographers are intelligent individuals, but one of the most egregious shortcomings has been their misplaced reliance on Wilson aide and sometimes confidant Edward Mandell House. O’Toole explains how and why House can be an unreliable source.

Before Wilson officially became U.S. president in 1913, he served as the elected governor of New Jersey; nothing is unusual about a state governor rising to the presidency. O’Toole, however, captures the unusualness of Wilson’s path to the governorship — as president of Princeton University. A campus professor who lived mostly in his head using a university presidency as a launchpad to the White House was (and still is) unusual indeed, especially given the anti-intellectual strain running through so much of the American citizenry.

The major events of his two terms in the White House are well known. But no previous biographer has captured the moralism of Wilson undergirding those events as well as O’Toole has. Wilson thought he understood the mass mind of his American constituents, but in truth he rarely understood the thought processes of mere mortals. As a result, Wilson’s determination to avoid U.S. involvement in World War I, followed by his insistence on some form of what became the United Nations, ran afoul of popular sentiment year after year.

Wilson’s insistence during postwar multinational negotiations on “my way or the highway” contributed to the start of World War II. The supposed war to end all wars during the Wilson presidency became a reassurance that fell flat.

After Wilson suffered a debilitating illness, he refused to accept his physical, emotional and cognitive limitations. Better than any previous biographer, O’Toole plumbs the depths of Wilson’s deception, interpreting the de facto presidency of spouse Edith Wilson as an immoral outrage.

 

Missouri writer Steve Weinberg has written biographies of Armand Hammer and Ida Tarbell. He is researching the life of cartoonist Garry Trudeau.

The Moralist
By: Patricia O'Toole.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 636 pages, $35.