Book review: Wilson, by A. Scott Berg

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 October, 2013, 5:57pm

by A. Scott Berg
3.5 stars

David Wilson

Despite running his country during a world war and racking up some epic achievements, Woodrow Wilson is no household name. In fact, the two-term president seems to be the grey man of American political history.

A hundred years from Wilson's inauguration, biographer A. Scott Berg says the reason for his drab reputation might partly be propaganda.

"Theodore Roosevelt, the greatest political personality of the day, took potshots at Wilson at every possible opportunity; and during the 1912 presidential campaign - which he lost to Wilson - advisers urged Roosevelt to smear his opponent with the rumours of an extramarital affair with a mysterious woman known as 'Mrs Peck'. TR refused, fearing that would only give Wilson some allure - as he looked like nothing more than 'an apothecary's clerk'," Berg writes.

Roosevelt could hardly have been more wrong, he adds: according to society doyenne Evalyn Walsh McLean, women found Wilson irresistible, making him a magnet for Washington gossip.

Wilson admitted being highly sexual - aware of the "riotous element" lurking in his blood, Berg writes, fuelling the memoir's drama and exposing the gap between truth and typecasting, as a seasoned biographer should.

Berg has previously covered the exploits of film producer Samuel Goldwyn, aviator Charles Lindbergh and actress Katherine Hepburn.

Born in 1856, in Staunton, Virginia, Woodrow Wilson was the product of a fervent Presbyterian family. The devout Christian spent his youth in the south, witnessing civil war carnage. Despite the trauma, Wilson evolved into a keen scholar and orator, and earned many degrees before embarking on a high-powered academic career, only to pivot to politics.

Cue a meteoric rise. In just two years, he graduated from being the governor of New Jersey to become the two-term 28th president of the United States in 1912 - nothing dull about that.

Wilson then steered America through the first world war, brokering its final chapter - the Versailles Treaty - and shaping the League of Nations, which foreshadowed the United Nations, but burnout beckoned.

During the last year of his presidency, Wilson suffered his second stroke and died three years after leaving office, aged 67, leaving a legacy that America's current two-time president, Barack Obama, will struggle to match. Besides promoting world peace, Wilson created the US' central banking system - the Federal Reserve - and signed the 19th Amendment, giving women the vote: quite a record.

Berg's 832-page portrait of the scholar-statesman is epic and elegant, if blemished by the bland title. Much worse: Berg is soft on Wilson's forays into Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Thanks to his interventions, the Democrat has been branded a fascist by other analysts.

Berg does accuse him of playing the Christian soldier. Further, he unmasks some twisted traits, not least racism. "For all his talk of even-handedness, Wilson did not consider the races fundamentally equal, and he had no intention of equalising them under the law," Berg writes, noting that he scorned the French army's policy of letting black soldiers fight beside their white comrades.

As biographical subjects often do, Wilson proves more complicated than he seems. The love letters he wrote as a widower wooing his second wife confirm he could be passionate. His decline, stoked by feud-fuelled hypertension, seems tragic.

Thanks to Berg's monumental assessment, it is hard to hate or dismiss the luminary saddled with a dull clerk image.