Wilson at His Worst and Best


by A. Scott Berg
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 818 pp., $40.00
Orren Jack Turner/Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library
President-Elect Woodrow Wilson and his wife Ellen Axson in Princeton, New Jersey, on their way to Washington, D.C., March 3, 1913

Georges Clemenceau famously compared Woodrow Wilson to Jesus Christ (and not to Wilson’s advantage); John Maynard Keynes thought he was a booby; Richard Nixon, surprisingly, admired him and had his desk brought into his office at the White House (although with the capacity for missteps that dogged Nixon, the desk turned out to belong to someone else). American liberals have tended to idolize Wilson as someone who had big ideas and wanted to set the world to rights while conservatives blame him for everything from the Federal Reserve to the United Nations. Glenn Beck predictably loathes him and today’s Europeans tend to cast him as the worst type of moralizing American whose noble sentiments cloak sheer self-interest.

Yet the roads and squares all over Europe that are still named after Wilson are relics of a time when he was greeted rapturously by an earlier generation who hoped that he was bringing a new and more peaceful era to their troubled continent. It is hard not to see parallels with Barack Obama, both positive and negative. Both men spoke—with great eloquence—to ordinary Americans and to many around the world. Both have also been accused by their critics of being indecisive and using their fine words to paper over a lack of action.

Nearly a century after his death, Woodrow Wilson still stirs controversy, as Obama will continue to do, and there is no agreement among historians on his place in history. For isolationists in the 1920s and 1930s, Wilson was the man who had duped the United States into entering World War I. In the late 1950s William Appleman Williams accused him of using a moralistic foreign policy as a cover for the extension of American economic dominance. Arno Mayer and others thought Wilson’s call for a new world order was driven primarily by fear of Bolshevism both at home and abroad. Gordon Levin Jr. sees him as preparing the way for “an American liberal globalism, hostile both to traditional imperialism and to revolutionary-socialism.”

The man himself remains a puzzling mix. He was highly intelligent, principled, and thoughtful. An intellectual, he was also a warm and deeply emotional man. Some of the nicest passages in the new biography by Scott Berg show Wilson in love—he wrote wonderful love letters—or with his beloved daughters. As a politician and as a man he showed great courage: he stood up, for example, to the powerful Democratic machine in New Jersey, and when, as president, he received the almost inevitable death threats, he accepted them calmly and refused to sequester himself. “The country,” he said, “cannot afford to have a coward for President.”

Yet he was also quick to see slights and was vindictive…

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