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Berg’s ‘Wilson’: A Warts-and-All Portrait

A. Scott Berg’s “Wilson,” a biography of the 28th president, covers what everybody knows about Woodrow Wilson: He was an academic wunderkind, educational and political reformer, governor, president, statesman, visionary. Berg also includes what’s less well-known: probable racist.

Unusually for a presidential biographer, Berg leaves the reader liking Wilson’s most implacable foes more than the man himself. French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau found that Wilson “thought himself another Jesus Christ come upon the earth to reform men.” Even those who think Clemenceau did more than anyone at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference to ensure that World War I would eventually be followed by World War II have to give the old rogue credit for tiring of Wilson.

The numerous ministers among Wilson’s ancestors, the references to religion in his thinking and conversation, and his complete and abrupt severing of ties with close confidants are elements of the fervor. Wilson himself said religion made his life “worth living.” Berg heightens this aspect of the man by using religious references for his chapter headings: Ascension, Reformation, Baptism, Eden, Paul, Gethsemane, etc.

One of the rich ironies of all this is that trustees at Princeton University — then still the College of New Jersey — opposed Wilson’s hiring because he was insufficiently Christian in his writings. Wilson overcame that just as he overcame most other obstacles on his road to the White House. From a distance of 100 years, it’s hard to grasp how he catapulted himself from the presidency at Princeton to the New Jersey governor’s chair and then to the presidency in the short space of three years.

Wilson’s speeches fall flat today, but he was one of the most popular and powerful speakers of his time. The country had a popular respect for education and educators that has frayed somewhat. And it helped that the Republicans were split in 1912, clearing Wilson’s path to Washington. The 1916 election was a much closer call.

Wilson, of course, is one of the progressive reformers of American history, first at Princeton, where he brought scholarly rigor to replace — or at least complement — its status as a place for rich, young men to idle away their time; then as governor of New Jersey, where he outwitted the machine politicians; and finally as a two-term president. Tariff reform, the establishment of the Federal Reserve, agricultural research, anti-trust laws, the reintroduction of the income tax, the 14 points describing U.S. war aims in World War I, and the League of Nations are his legacy. (The 14th point called for a League of Nations. The Senate didn’t ratify the treaty, and the United States didn’t join.)

For all of the moral high ground, however, Wilson not only was indifferent to injustice right in front of him, but he also was actively involved in causing it. He asked Congress for the Espionage Act, which was used to stifle criticism after Wilson decided to take the United States into the war, in contradiction of his campaign pledges in 1916. What Wilson didn’t get in the initial legislation, Congress offered in the Sedition Act of 1918. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s notorious raids came later, after Wilson had been debilitated by a stroke, but the president helped prepare the ground.

Wilson filled his first Cabinet with racists, anti-Semites and white supremacists. They brought Jim Crow laws into federal government offices, a signal that many states received and repeated. To critics, Wilson, a child of the South — his father had preached to his Georgia congregation that slavery had divine sanction — protested that he was trying to make the best of a bad situation. The sum of President Wilson’s action looks like he never strayed far from his father’s beliefs.

Throughout his life, Wilson could be tersely smug about his own superiority. “Your tone, sir, offends me,” he told an African-American who vigorously protested the segregation that Wilson was allowing into government departments. He told the man’s group to get a new spokesman.

Berg cites a number of these curt dismissals of others and Wilson often sounds like a self-satisfied prig. His habit of calling his wife “little girl” has a grating sound that isn’t eliminated by making allowances for the time. Even by the standards of a successful politician and reformer, Wilson’s regard for himself was excessive. He could be unforgiving to anybody who questioned it.

Only a few weeks before leaving office, Wilson denied Eugene Debs a pardon. Debs had been imprisoned for his criticism of the war, and even Palmer was ready to back a pardon in the end.

Nobody held a grudge like Woodrow Wilson.

Randolph Walerius is an analyst for the CQ Roll Call Washington Securities Briefing.

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