Scott Berg’s biography, Wilson, published in 2013, presents a candid, complete, and well-rounded portrait of an American president whose impact places him among a small group of U.S. presidents, including Washington, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Truman.
The critical issue, Wilson’s vision of egalitarian democracy, self-determination and the rights of small countries remains relevant today. He famously championed the League of Nations after WWI to prevent a similar war from occurring, and he famously failed to achieve Senate ratification of what he had negotiated in Paris. A “coven” (not an inappropriate word used by Berg) of Republican senators acted
under the leadership of Henry Cabot Lodge just as Republican senators have acted under the direction of current senator Mitch McConnell, who vowed the day Barrack Obama was inaugurated that the priority was to ensure he would not be re-elected. Lodge’s pre-Versailles plan was to scuttle whatever Wilson negotiated, not knowing what that would be. This kind of cheap partisanship found its target more fatally in Wilson’s case than Obama’s. But Obama has paid a steep price nonetheless.
What Wilson foresaw was that Europe and the world would head into another terrible war if the peace of 1919 was not just and far-sighted. He was right. He also predicted that the United States, if it withdrew into itself, soon would head into a domestic depression. Right again.
But history makes it almost impossible to explain exactly what Wilson had in mind. By this I mean, he envisioned the impossible. He wanted a community of nations to act in concert, preserving peace and declining to pursue narrow national interests. Clemenceau of France and Lloyd George of England said yes to this but were lying even as they spoke. They had revenge and imperial interests on their minds. The latest example of such cynical leadership is Vladimir Putin, who is pressuring Ukraine because it boosts him politically, if not economically, at home, and accords with a sense of Russian grandeur. Meanwhile, Ukraine struggles to stay afloat. The United Nations, which finally came into being post-WWII and assumed the mantle of the League of Nations with greater authority and more “buy-in” is effectively helpless in thwarting Putin. Large powers like the U.S. and the E.U. have to resist him on Ukraine’s behalf, but the game is a delicate balance of interests. The U.S. objects to the bullying and destabilizing effect Putin is having not only on Ukraine but Europe at large. The E.U., more cautiously, needs to preserve natural gas flows from Russia while struggling to keep Ukraine oriented in Europe’s direction. What we see here is not egalitarian democracy, self-determination, and the rights of the small against the large, and it’s almost 100 years since Wilson offered us what seems, in truth, an ethereal vision of a world that can never be so pure, so self-restrained, so lacking in vindictiveness and overwhelming self-interest. The affairs of humankind do not seem destined to work that way . . . ever. This applies domestically in curious, perverse ways as well. If a president today attempted to champion a campaign to save us from climate change spoke with the eloquence, tenacity, and passion of Wilson championing the League of Nations, he or she would meet the same fate as Wilson. He or she would fall to “interests.”
Lincoln, Wilson, and FDR were three U.S. leaders who had to take the United States into and through great wars that Americans questioned and resisted. Each literally gave his life to his cause, assassinated or so worn out with the effort that he expired .
When we look at the craven stupidity of George Bush in Iraq or the naiveté of JFK and Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam, we see American presidents behaving more like the leaders of other countries. This is not to say that there have not been great idealists elsewhere or that all leaders of other countries are craven and naive. It’s only to say that the idealistic exceptions are few.
Berg presents a Wilson I didn’t know: he had his light side, his deeply romantic side, and apparently a spellbinding eloquence both as a college professor and president. The secret to his effectiveness as a speaker is one I’ve always believed in: talk to a thousand people as if you are talking to one, don’t talk down, the more extreme your rhetoric, the more quietly you should express it, give people a simple scheme of what you intend to say at the outset so that they can better understand what you will say at greater length later on.
Wilson’s complexity is more than I could address in a book review, but it seems that Wilson’s experience growing up in the defeated American South deeply affected his vision of how reconciliation should proceed. He agreed that slavery was an abomination and worth fighting against; in other words, he was a southerner who did not defend the practice, but he was a paternalistic figure who pushed the full integration of African-Americans into U.S. society very, very slowly. He did not give American blacks the respect he accorded citizens of other countries: the right to self-determination, protection from larger powers, and full participation in the democratic process. This, he believed, would take time, more time than he had at his disposal. Segregation in various forms made sense to him. Perhaps he was only a realist about this. Decades would pass in America before the Civil Rights movement. More decades would pass before Obama would be elected, and even then an undercurrent of persistent racism has trebled the difficulty of his job.
The most compelling portions of Berg’s book are the penultimate chapters following Wilson on his train campaign across America, preaching to huge crowds that the League of Nations was the right answer for America and the world. He had not been a well man for many years. He had had strokes and he had intestinal problems and he had severe headaches. But the crowds drew the best from him until he ultimately could not leave his train to undertake the last five or six scheduled events.
At that point he rolled back to Washington and remained in seclusion for months, and we come to the passages where his second wife, Edith, and his doctor, Admiral Grayson, conspired to shield him from prying eyes and assist him in carrying out the functions of his office.
The poet who most reminds me of Wilson is Rilke. Rilke had the same ethereal qualities, the same impossible-to-pinpoint faith in spirits and angels and ideals. It strains the mind to follow his otherworldly visions, and yet there is beauty and hope, passion and desperation, that make Rilke intriguing. The same can be said for the professor who became president. He always wanted to be a politician, but that did not enable him to do what he set out to do–change the world.