(5/12) Wilson, by A. Scott Berg

Nov 18, 2018, 03:19 AM

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 Photo: Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, 1900

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Wilson, by A. Scott Berg; reviewed by Kevin Baker, published in the New York Times.

No American president was more improbable than Thomas Woodrow Wilson. None better embodied how we like to think of ourselves in the greater world.

A Princeton University president and political economy professor given to making high-minded speeches and advocating a parliamentary system, Wilson held no public office until he was 54 years old. Recruited to run for governor of New Jersey in 1910 by a Democratic machine boss who thought he would be easily controlled, the prof schooled the pro in practical politics, passing a reform agenda that curbed the power of parties and corporations alike. “After dealing with college politicians,” he gibed, “I find that the men with whom I am dealing with now seem like amateurs.”

Adroitly riding the progressive wave breaking over the country, Wilson took the presidency two years later, only the second Democrat to capture the White House since the Civil War. He possessed a rare instinct for power and how to use it. Once in Washington he put his theories to the test, audaciously choosing to rule more as a prime minister than a traditional chief executive. Within 10 months he had passed a progressive agenda that had been stalled for a generation, slashing tariff rates that protected monopolies, passing the first permanent federal income tax and creating the Federal Reserve system to end the bank panics that continually ravaged the American economy. More reforms — to bolster antitrust laws, discourage child labor and inaugurate the eight-hour day and workers’ compensation — followed.

Handsome and charismatic, Wilson was our first modern president, holding regular news conferences, complaining about having to live in Washington and delighting in popular distractions like baseball games, detective stories, golf and especially the new moving pictures. He adored women and had remarkably modern partnerships with them, sharing every aspect of his work and his ideas with his wife, Ellen, and, after she died, with his second wife, Edith. He also had a longtime — and apparently platonic — female friend.

A. Scott Berg tells the story of Wilson, the man, very well indeed. The author of four previous prizewinning, best-selling biographies, he has a novelist’s eye for the striking detail, and a vivid prose style.

He is on less sure footing when it comes to Wilson, the statesman. Too often, he relies on shoddy sources that distort the historical record. The Black Death recurred frequently, but it did not last for 400 years. Henry Cabot Lodge was not a right-¬winger, the Royal Navy did not take “a timorous approach” to German U-boats and Winston Churchill did not believe that “America should have minded its own business and stayed out of the world war.”

Berg gives us little on the vital economic debates of the Progressive Era, and only a perfunctory comparison of Wilson’s “New Freedom” and Teddy Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism.” There is barely a mention of the Pujo committee’s investigations into our financial system, which made many of Wilson’s reforms possible, and no attempt to assess the long-term effects of these reforms.

He does better on issues like women’s rights and especially race. Wilson, a Virginia native steeped in the lore of the “Lost Cause,” stuffed his cabinet full of bigoted Southern mediocrities, who cruelly segregated federal offices, ca...