Book review: Wilson

For many years, without knowing much beyond the basics about Wilson, I greatly admired him for his idealism and his commitment, ill-fated as it was, to the League of Nations concept.  Then, I ran across some references to his attitudes toward race, and I seriously questioned the depth of my understanding of who he was and the kind of president he was. This book helped bring that all into perspective.

No single biography, of course, is enough to help one have a well-nuanced understanding of a subject, but this well-researched, thorough and generally uncompromising depiction of the life of a fascinating president does provide a solid baseline.  A. Scott Berg’s writing style is well short of poetic, but his attention to detail and his commitment to painting an honest, complete picture of Wilson is rewarding and effective.  To be sure, there are points throughout this biography when one might think the author has drunk a bit too much of the Wilson Kool-Aid, but ultimately, the portrait he paints for an objective reader is of a flawed, but deeply idealistic human being who – perhaps because of his own flaws, perhaps because of the vicissitudes of his fragile health, perhaps because of the shortcomings of his time – comes just short of setting up the world for a lasting, sustainable peace.

I was fortunate to read this book as I was also reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit, which describes vividly the political and social environment that enabled Wilson to complete some of the progressive goals of the day  – the eight-hour work day, weekends and some management of monopolies come to mind – that his two predecessors Roosevelt and Taft had worked hard to effect.

Much about this book, especially with the added context of the Goodwin history, helped deepen and strengthen my understanding of and respect for the first two decades of the 20th century, which – World War I notwithstanding – I would previously have thought of as generally unimpressive in the evolution of American ideals and social awareness.  The period was, in fact, a pivotal era in the shaping of a truly egalitarian, idealistic economic and social construct for America. It never achieved its promise, and it was far from being as enlightened as – when we are in our better moments – we are today.. But Berg’s biography  contributes much to understanding both Wilson the man and Wilson the politician and to reflection on what may turn out to be the end of our innocence – that time when we actually thought that social justice and  a stable, peaceful world order were achievable and we were willing to endow and elect presidents based solely on an idealistic vision of athe world could be.

I was very curious as I read this biography to reflect on Wilson’s personal goals and aspirations as they coincided with his idealism for the working classes and a just and peaceful world order.  It was fascinating to see the depth of his misery upon the death of his first wife, but to watch the uncompromising ardor of his pursuit of the woman who would become his, deeply devoted, second wife. He was, of course, a product of his times, but my personal suspicion is that he was also a sexually driven romantic. It was particularly interesting to reflect on the interplay between his personal life and his public life, and I’m grateful to Berg for the way he deftly describes both, so that one can reflect on the totality of interests motivating and driving Wilson throughout his presidential years.

I’m not sure how much more I need to read now about this period or particularly about Wilson’s presidency, but I will say that this book leaves me very satisfied that I have a a good understanding of Wilson and his times, and of why they both are important to who we are today.