Normally one might be daunted by a solid 800 page biography, especially one of an American President all but ninety years dead, however if you have any book-tokens from your Christmas you might choose A Scott Berg’s magnificent “Wilson”.
Woodrow Wilson was the 28th President and embodied a feeling of many of his countrymen that this how they should be seen as the outside world. Wilson is seen as the first “modern” President the architect of the twentieth century.
Wilson was a high-minded deeply religious academic who had never held public office before he was 54. He surprised everyone, and perhaps even himself, how well he managed. Wilson put this down to a life in the ivory tower. “After dealing with college politicians” he opined pompously “I find the men whom I am dealing with now seem like amateurs”.
He certainly had an instinct for power and was in certain respects a breath of the modern world. He did the News Conference thing – a first, played golf, threw the first ball of the baseball series and treated women of his own class as equals. Otherwise he was every bit as snobbish as the rest of his class and treated constituents as common. Wilson remained as bigoted as his predecessors.
Berg is good on the build-up, on background and Wilson’s insufferable Christianity. However I felt unhappy with the biblical quotes for each section of the book. A little too heavy perhaps. I felt that allying Wilson in some way with a Christ like figure was just taking it too far. The section with foreign politicians was also less sure. I am certain that Churchill never felt “America should have minded its own business and stayed out of the world war”.
I also thought he was a bit thin on economic debates, or the matter of the “New Freedom” but far better on women and race – on his bigoted southern cabinet who brought segregation to the White House canteens, rest-rooms and offices.
Berg is also good on Wilson’s lack of forgiveness, his vile temper, deep grudges, and his poor choice of advisors. He is brilliant on the War and how he dragged the States out onto centre stage of the world as its strongest manufacturer and sole creditor nation.
Technically it is probably not the best biography of Wilson in recent years, for that I would still choose John Milton Cooper’s 2009 “Woodrow Wilson A Biography”.
But for a very readable study written by someone whose obvious affection for his subject is clear in every sentence I can certainly recommend Scott.
Copyright David Macadam 2014