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Book Review: Wilson by A. Scott Berg

In the 743 page biography of the twenty-eighth President of the United States simply titled Wilson, Pulitzer Prize winning author Scott Berg provides a very detailed and thorough history of the life of Thomas Woodrow Wilson, perhaps the most thorough Wilson biography ever written. It's not the best Wilson biography ever written (John Milton Cooper's 2011 Wilson biography is more objective), but this is still an outstanding profile of the man.

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Two things become quickly become apparent about the author and his feelings for his subject. Firstly, Berg is unsparing in his prose, believing that if ten words provide a good way of describing something, a hundred words are better. This isn't necessarily problematic, as Berg is an able wordsmith and this style is in keeping with his subject, the professorial president.

The second thing that is apparent is Berg's love for his subject, which borders on hero worship. Wilson was famous for demanding unquestioning loyalty from those around him, and from much of what Berg writes, one is left with the impression that Berg is imagining that Wilson is critiquing his work, which might explain his desire to praise Wilson so much. For example in one passage (on page 433), Berg writes of how Wilson "summoned the country's most successful speechwriter, one of its foremost historians, one of its first political scientists, one of its most elegant wordsmiths, a spiritual thinker to provide moral grounding, and, finally, his most trusted stenographer to get it all down on paper. There in the second-story study, Woodrow Wilson sat alone." Throughout the book, it is as if Berk is writing so as to seek Woodrow Wilson's approval.

The problem with this extreme adulation is that, while there is much to admire about Wilson, there is also much to question and criticize. For example, a southerner by birth, born just prior to the civil war, Wilson was a not-so-subtle racist who set back the progress of African-Americans by increasing segregation in the federal civil service. Berg acknowledges as much, but offers lukewarm justification for Wilson's actions, while glossing over the significance of this issue. Wilson's refusal to compromise even slightly on the conditions of his nation's acceptance of the Treaty of Versailles and on the terms of US entry into the League of Nations, clearly appears to be the result of Wilson's arrogance and egotistical pride, and while the facts are acknowledged, nothing is made of this. Finally, after Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke late in his second term, a conspiracy to hide the extent of his incapacity was entered into by the President, the first Lady, the President's physician and others. This was clearly an affront to the constitution and morally wrong, and yet the author appears to think no less of Wilson in spite of this. A more even-handed assessment of Woodrow Wilson, good and bad, would have made this a better book.

Notwithstanding this major shortfall, this is still a very enjoyable history. The author has done his homework and tells us much about Wilson's early years, his time in academia, the mechanics of his rise to power, the day to day operation of his presidency and his most intimate thoughts and conversations. Wilson is an odd duck, and Berg lets the reader get to know this very private man, writing in an enjoyable style that makes us feel as if we are in the room with Wilson, as if we know the man. We learn of his great intellect as well as his personal idiosyncrasies and peccadilloes. To a lesser extent we learn much about first ladies Ellen Wilson and Edith Wilson. The second Mrs. Wilson is especially interesting in her devotion to her husband during the period of his infirmity, though the reader is left with more questions than answers about her. For example, she is presented as someone with intense loyalty, but she must also have been someone very intelligent and capable in her own right, since she acted as "co-president" during her husband's period of disability.

Berg provides a marvelous chronicle of the history of the United States, and indeed the world, during the early part of the 20th century, of the events leading up to the first world war, of life during the war, and of the efforts to repair the world in its aftermath. It is not simply a book about the life of Woodrow Wilson, it is also an excellent account of his times. Berg is an able author and historian, and this accounting of a fascinating personality living and leading in very interesting period of history makes for some very good reading.
Tags: author: b, genre: historical fiction, genre: non-fiction, review, subject: biography, subject: history
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