The day after Woodrow Wilson won the 1912 presidential election, he was visited by William McCombs, chairman of his campaign committee.
“Before we proceed,” Wilson told him, “I wish it clearly understood that I owe you nothing. God ordained that I should be the next president of the United States. Neither you nor any other mortal could have prevented that.”
No other statement says as much about the man now reclaimed from obscurity by A. Scott Berg, biographer of Charles Lindbergh, Samuel Goldwyn and editor Max Perkins, in “Wilson.”
Son of a Presbyterian minister, Wilson was an ardent Christian. Berg sets the tone with chapter titles like “Ascension” “Baptism” and “Ecclesiastes,” beginning each with a biblical quotation.
Of the great presidents -- historians usually rank him in the top 10, though Berg doesn’t really make the case -- Wilson is perhaps the most obscure.
Well-informed people know he was president during the First World War and that he championed the League of Nations, an early United Nations prototype.
Those with a taste for television documentaries may know he wore himself out trying to sell the League to the American people after it had been torpedoed in the U.S. Senate, and that his wife ran the country while he recovered from a stroke, “the greatest conspiracy that had ever engulfed the White House,” as Berg puts it.
Otherwise, Wilson is forgotten. Like his rival Theodore Roosevelt, he wore pince-nez glasses. He favored tall silk hats. Didn’t he have something to do with Princeton?
Berg shows there was a lot more to the man than this scant evidence and his own austere, schoolmasterly mien suggests. In 1902, at age 45, he attained what was probably his dream job as president of Princeton University. There he would have stayed had the university faculty and trustees gone along with his plan to de-emphasize the school’s elitist “eating clubs” in favor of residential quadrangles.
The fight was as bitter as the stakes were small. When New Jersey Democratic bosses knocked on his door in 1910 and offered him the governorship and an inside track to the presidency in 1912, he was receptive. As he later said as governor, “After dealing with college politicians, I find that the men with whom I am dealing now seem like amateurs.”
Thus began an unlikely ascendance. After less than two years of public service, he took the Democratic nomination on the 46th ballot (those were the days when conventions really meant something), and went on to face Republican incumbent William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, running on the Bull Moose ticket.
Perhaps it was his Progressive agenda, which he said favored the man on the make rather than the man who had already made it. Perhaps it was his oratory, which tended to “sneak up” on people, as Berg says. Maybe he really was charismatic, as the author avers. Wilson won all but eight states in the Electoral College.
Wilson wasn’t the first Democratic president since Reconstruction; it just seemed that way. Born in Virginia, he was a son of the South, and his cabinet was full of men with “Confederate biases,” according to Berg. They institutionalized segregation in the federal government. Wilson, who treated individuals with decency and dignity, was “indubitably racist,” Berg writes.
He “kept us out of war,” as the saying went, yet when he did ask the country to go to war, his administration proved repressive in the extreme, embracing a Sedition Act that kept a lid on the press. Berg deals with actual American participation in the war in only a couple of pages; and surely I am the only reader who wished he had spent more time on the creation of the Federal Reserve.
Berg spends probably a third of the book on Wilson’s waging of the peace, a depressing story for anyone at all interested in foreign affairs and the world stage. Is any nation good at this? The Treaty of Versailles was a botch and led directly to the Second World War. The record since then is little better.
The Wilson that emerges in “Wilson” isn’t the most pleasant of characters. He was rigid, arrogant, brooked no disagreement. He was “a good hater,” and stopped talking to three once-bosom friends.
There’s a surprising nugget here, as there often is with Berg biographies: Wilson may have suffered from dementia from about 1919 on. Or he may just have enjoyed rearranging furniture during the Paris peace talks and reciting limericks. Even at 800-plus pages, at the end I was sorry to see Wilson go.
“Wilson” is published by Putnam (818 pages, $40). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Joe Mysak is editor of Bloomberg Brief’s Municipal Market, and author of “The Encyclopedia of Municipal Bonds.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Ryan Sutton on dining and Katya Kazakina on art.