By A. Scott Berg
G. P. Putnam’s Sons
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.”
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.
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.”
Nowhere does he address Margaret MacMillan’s arguments in “Paris 1919” that the whole idea of a tragic peace is overstated — that deconstructing the ancient empires leveled by World War I was too complicated a task to have ever gone well, and that there was no conceivable peace the Germans would not have resented.