A. Scott Berg’s portrait of Woodrow Wilson

Wilson. A. Scott Berg. Putnam.
632 pages. $23.80.
Wilson. A. Scott Berg. Putnam. 632 pages. $23.80.

History’s greatest monster, according to Glenn Beck, was not Hitler or Stalin or even Jimmy Carter; it was an ex-college professor from New Jersey. During his two terms in the White House, Woodrow Wilson oversaw profound changes in the United States, which Beck and his fellow neo-Birchers consider the beginning of the moral and spiritual decline of God’s country. But as A. Scott Berg points out in this exhaustive biography, the Almighty was never far from Wilson’s mind.

Berg’s chapter titles all refer to religion: ascension, baptism, resurrection, etc. He doesn’t stop there. A biblical quotation opens every chapter. The message is clear: Wilson’s faith was an integral part of his public life. The son of a Presbyterian minister, he tried to follow a righteous path. But sometimes he strayed into self-righteousness, a sin that diminished an otherwise impressive legacy.

Berg is a masterful biographer; his books on Charles Lindbergh, Samuel Goldwyn and Max Perkins have received well-deserved plaudits and prizes. Wilson is a comparably rewarding reading experience. While forbiddingly long, it is an absorbing look at a formative period in American history and a magnanimous appraisal of an uncommon leader whose controversial idealism resounds to this day.

Wilson believed that providence had chosen him. Given his dizzyingly quick rise to power, he might have been right. In a mere two and a half years, he went from being a relatively obscure academic to commander-in-chief.

When Democratic Party bosses approached Wilson to run for governor of New Jersey in 1910, he was ready for a career switch. A respected constitutional scholar, he had served almost a decade as Princeton University’s president, a largely fruitful tenure that ended bitterly after the board of trustees rejected his plan to reduce the level of snobbishness on campus.

It was the height of the progressive era. The New Jersey bosses wanted a fresh face, a private citizen with a reputation for incorruptibility who would act as their figurehead. But nobody ever controlled Wilson. Once he became governor, he turned on his cigar-chomping benefactors and crippled their political machine.

After winning the 1912 nomination in a heated contest, Wilson was a shoo-in for November. The Republicans were split between two presidents: the uninspiring incumbent, William Howard Taft, and his hyperactive predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, who was running as a third-party candidate.

Due to overwhelming majorities in Congress, Wilson’s first term achievements amounted to a progressive wish list come true: the Federal Reserve Board, a federal income tax, tougher anti-trust laws, popular election of U.S. senators, and a friendly attitude toward organized labor. He appointed Louis Brandeis, a radical lawyer despised by conservatives, to the Supreme Court (he was also its first Jewish justice). By signing the National Park Service Act, he preserved the environment more than any other president, including Roosevelt.

On matters of race, however, Wilson was unforgivably retrograde. He may have resided in the Northwest, but his heart belonged to Dixie. Born in antebellum Virginia and reared in Georgia and South Carolina, he was a white supremacist who filled his Cabinet with like-minded good ol’ boys.

They introduced Jim Crow to the federal government. Departments that had allowed blacks and whites to share dining and toilet facilities were ordered to make less equitable accommodations. Employees who had worked together in the same office were separated, sometimes with screens.

Ideological inconsistencies emerged in Wilson’s second term too. The intellectual reformer who had promised a “new freedom” cracked down on dissent after the United States entered World War I. Mail was withheld and censored, protesters thrown into jail. The nation, Berg writes, “entered a period of repression as egregious as any in [its] history.”

After an armistice was declared, Wilson sailed to Europe to attend the Paris peace conference. He was greeted like a messiah. But his obsession with establishing a League of Nations drove him to concede crucial points, leaving the world with a treacherous treaty that set the stage for the next war.

But Wilson was not well. Berg believes he suffered a minor stroke in Paris, a prelude to the thunderbolt that struck him down several months later, in October 1919. With the pace of a thriller, Berg describes how Wilson’s wife and his doctor concealed his disabling and irreversible condition, an illegal conspiracy that left the country without a functioning president until March 1921.

Wilson was a broken man when he left office, but Berg reminds us that he was once a giant whose shadow fell across the land.

Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.

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