In the tradition of Truman, John Adams, and Team of Rivals, the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning biographer of Charles Lindbergh, Maxwell Perkins, and Samuel Goldwyn sheds new light on a president and his presidency in a way that redefines our understanding of a tide-turning historical moment.
One hundred years after his inauguration, Woodrow Wilson still stands as one of the most influential figures of the twentieth century, and one of the most enigmatic. And now, after more than a decade of research and writing, Pulitzer Prize-winning author A. Scott Berg has completed Wilson—the most personal and penetrating biography ever written about the twenty-eighth President.
In addition to the hundreds of thousands of documents in the Wilson Archives, Berg was the first biographer to gain access to two recently discovered caches of papers belonging to those close to Wilson. From this material, Berg was able to add countless details—even several unknown events—that fill in missing pieces of Wilson’s character and cast new light on his entire life.
From the scholar-President who ushered the country through its first great world war to the man of intense passion and turbulence, from the idealist determined to make the world “safe for democracy” to the stroke-crippled leader whose incapacity and the subterfuges around it were among the century’s greatest secrets, the result is an intimate portrait written with a particularly contemporary point of view—a book at once magisterial and deeply emotional about the whole of Wilson’s life, accomplishments, and failings. This is not just Wilson the icon—but Wilson the man.
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A. Scott Berg is the author of four bestselling biographies: Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, winner of the National Book Award; Goldwyn; Lindbergh, winner of the Pulitzer Prize; and Kate Remembered. He lives in Los Angeles.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. :
So then after the Lord had spoken unto them, he was received uvp into heaven, and sate on the right hand of God.
Dawn broke that day on a new epoch, one that would carry the name of a man whose ideas and ideals would extend well into the next century.
Shortly after seven o’clock on Wednesday, December 4, 1918, the sun rose over Hoboken, just as the nine-car special train of the twenty-eighth President of the United States chugged its way through the New Jersey city that fronted the western piers of New York harbor. One thousand soldiers and a Marine Corps guard of honor joined the local police in restraining the hundreds who stood in the chilly first light in hopes of catching a glimpse of the illustrious passenger. They wanted nothing more, wrote one observer, than “to cheer the president and to wish him God-speed on his momentous voyage.” At last, the flag-draped locomotive sputtered to a halt so that its central car—named “Ideal”—stopped before a red carpet leading to Pier 4. A battalion of the 13th United States Infantry surrounded the train.
The passengers remained on board until eight o’clock, at which time President Woodrow Wilson and his second wife, Edith, stepped off the train, prompting a rousing rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” from an Army band. Brigadier General G. H. McManus, commander of the Port of Embarkation, stepped forward to welcome his Commander in Chief. In the last eighteen months, McManus’s port had witnessed the deployment of two million “doughboys” (as American soldiers were called) who had gone off to fight “the Hun” and win the first truly global war in history. General John J. Pershing, who had led the American Expeditionary Force, had rallied his armies from the outset with the vow that they would be in “Heaven, Hell or Hoboken” by Christmas of 1917.
A year later than Pershing had promised, President Wilson tipped his hat and greeted the surrounding soldiers and sailors before proceeding through a huge shed, which was lined with three hundred Army Transport Service girls in khaki and infantrymen bearing fixed bayonets. Hundreds of flags, those of the United States and the Allied nations—Great Britain, France, Belgium, and Italy most recognizable among them—hung from the ceiling of this vast hall. Wilson walked beneath the glorious array and onto his home for the next ten days, the United States steamship George Washington. On December 4, 1917, that same ship had transported her first five thousand troops to fight in the war “over there.” Now the great vessel was about to convey President Wilson and his team of aides and experts on a voyage of peace to Europe—not only to conclude what had been the greatest conflagration in the history of man but also to create a document that might guarantee that they had just fought “the war to end all wars.”
As the President and Mrs. Wilson ascended the gangplank, the naval band on board struck up “Hail to the Chief,” after which it reprised the National Anthem. Then the Wilsons settled into their flower-filled accommodations. The President’s suite consisted of a green-curtained bedroom and bath and a large office, with a mahogany desk on which sat a white telephone for shipboard calls; attached to a wall was a wireless telephone by which the President could communicate with Washington or the Pennsylvania, the lead escort ship. Mrs. Wilson’s bedroom—decorated in ivory with a pink bedspread, curtains, and plump cushions—connected to a large bath, a dining room large enough to seat six comfortably, and a sitting room with a writing desk, chairs, and a table. It was all to her liking, except for the soldiers outside their staterooms and patrolling the decks.
Never in history had so much security surrounded an American president. In addition to the military presence, eight members of the Secret Service were aboard the George Washington, with two more doing advance work in France. The ship, recalled agent Edmund W. Starling, “had been checked from bow to stern and from keel to masthead, and members of the Secret Service all over the United States had been busy investigating members of the crew. . . . There was not a fireman or cabin boy whose family and background had not been thoroughly looked into.” The hopes of the world were on board, and everything was being done to ensure the safety of the transport.
At 10:15 the twin-stacked ship—722 feet long and weighing twenty-five thousand tons—backed into the Hudson River. Once its stern was sighted heading northward, all the vessels in the waters around the New York islands responded with bells and sirens and horns and whistles. Passengers on every craft jockeyed for rail position in order to wish Woodrow Wilson bon voyage.
Wearing a bearskin coat, the President, with his wife, joined Captain Edward McCauley, Jr., on the bridge. Wilson waved his hands and raised his hat to the crowds again and again in appreciation of the most spectacular send-off in New York history. It was difficult to imagine in that moment of purely joyful noise, with thousands of flags and handkerchiefs waving in his honor, that he was one of the most polarizing Presidents in the nation’s history. As one of his earliest supporters, Oklahoma Senator Thomas Pryor Gore, once said: “Wilson had no friends, only slaves and enemies.”
British Parliamentarian Cecil Harmsworth would later observe that he did not know of “any historic personage . . . who so strangely attracts and repels” as Woodrow Wilson. This was possibly because—as another Wilson acquaintance observed—“probably in the history of the whole world there has been no great man, of whom so much has been written, but of whom personally so little has been correctly known.” Yet another, who, as a college student, had first encountered him, never lost sight of the personal paradox that was the man: “Stern and impassive, yet emotional; calm and patient, yet quick-tempered and impulsive; forgetful of those who had served him, yet devoted to many who had rendered but minor service . . . precise and business-like, and yet, upon occasion, illogical without more reason than intuition itself.”
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 rumors 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.” In this matter, however, TR’s political assessment was mistaken. For all the dour photographs of the very proper President, society doyenne Evalyn Walsh McLean insisted that the women of America found him extremely attractive, which made him the subject of much giddy Washington gossip. For his part, Wilson admitted his susceptibility “to all feminine attractions,” as “girls of all degrees of beauty and grace have a charm for me which almost amounts to a spell.” He was, by his own admission, extremely sexual, always aware of “the riotous element in my blood.” Beneath his stern ministerial appearance churned a turbulent emotional life.
In wooing his first wife, the ethereal Ellen Axson of Rome, Georgia, Wilson indulged in one of the most expansive love correspondences in history—thousands of letters so passionate she said they kept her “in an almost constant state of intoxication.” Cultured, well-read, and a talented artist, she abandoned any professional aspirations in order to serve her husband and raise their three daughters. She enabled his ambitions—all the way to the White House, in which she got to live only fourteen months before dying there. Bereft beyond words, he contemplated resignation.
But the war had just broken out in Europe, and what duty could not arouse in him, a friend did, by introducing him to a buxom, well-to-do, young Washington widow named Edith Bolling Galt. The President fell in love at first sight. Despite the political and practical difficulties of courting from the White House, the President romanced her, again through sheaves of letters and private meetings. Less than eighteen months after burying the first Mrs. Wilson, he married the second. She worshipped him. And from that day forward—in health and unexpectedly grave sickness—she almost never left his side. Unwittingly, she would later enter into a conspiracy that ran the government and which would result in an amendment to the Constitution to prevent such an occurrence from happening again. Throughout their marriage, she monitored a twitch in his lower left eyelid and a throbbing in his cheek.
Despite numerous chronic ailments—and a bad cold as he boarded the ship—sixty-one-year-old Woodrow Wilson appeared remarkably fit. He stood five feet ten and one-half inches and weighed a lean 170 pounds. Except for some youthful experimentation with mustaches and sideburns, he had always been clean-shaven, with strong cheekbones and a prominent chin; he had a fine straight nose, and ears large enough to make some look twice. His hair had thinned, but he always retained enough to cut close and part neatly on the left. Although his vision was weak—one eye virtually useless—his deep gray eyes were as understanding as they could be piercing. A pince-nez, which emphasized his erudition, became his trademark. That and a J-shaped jaw were all a caricaturist needed to conjure the man. He had a well-defined mouth, with full lips; and though the public mostly saw a solemn face, he had a toothy smile and a deep laugh, one generally reserved for intimate occasions. He told corny jokes, could not resist a pun, and always had a limerick at the ready—the raciest of which was about “an old monk from Siberia” who “eloped with the Mother Superior.” He loved to sing, showing off his silvery second tenor voice. One adviser wrote, “I never knew a man whose general appearance changed so much from hour to hour.” His demeanor could change as well. “He seems to do his best to offend rather than to please, and yet when one gets access to him, there is no more charming man in all the world than Woodrow Wilson.”
More than the elegant profile and courtly mien contributed to Wilson’s authoritative stature. Diplomat and historian George F. Kennan—who closely observed public figures throughout most of his 101 years—noted, “No man in modern times, to my mind, ever better looked or acted the part of an American president.”
Twenty-six men had preceded Woodrow Wilson to the White House. Each generally pursued one of three well-worn paths, and sometimes a combination thereof: the earliest presidents especially rose through the ranks of state legislatures until they leapt to the national level, either in Congress, the Cabinet, or the diplomatic corps; a handful earned their stripes on the battlefield, where their leadership and heroism transformed them into national figures; several graduated from statehouses to the White House. Woodrow Wilson, it is true, did serve as Governor of New Jersey—but so briefly that it barely distracts from his having blazed a trail to the Presidency that is utterly unique. Quite simply, he enjoyed the most meteoric rise in American history, one with a most unlikely origin—a college campus.
Woodrow Wilson loved his alma mater, Princeton, with religious zeal; and as a professor and then its president, he not only reformed a country club college into a top-tier university but also developed a pedagogical model that many of America’s institutions of higher education would subsequently adopt. His efforts to alter Princeton’s social structure, however, forced him to leave under a cloud and to consider a lesson he taught without fully grasping himself: “If you want to make enemies, try to change something.”
A career intellectual, he was the only President of the United States to have spent the majority of his life cloistered in academia. Like most of his predecessors, he studied the law; and he became the first President to earn a doctorate degree as well. As one of the nation’s leading historians and first political scientists, he had written a dozen books and numerous articles and delivered countless lectures and speeches—often on matters that reached into the realm of public affairs. While advocating educational reforms at Princeton, he had fought against the injustices of privilege wherever he could, championing meritocracy. Wilson distinguished himself as a public thinker.
But he had spent most of his life in private frustration, half-fulfilled, as he long harbored hidden aspirations he seldom voiced. His intellectual vigor masked a lifelong ambition to hold high political office—to make history more than teach it. With Princeton’s trustees thwarting his educational revolution, the impeccable Wilson accepted an offer to run for Governor of New Jersey. In so doing, he disabled the “machine” of the most corrupt state in the Union, defying the very bosses who had selected him to be their puppet. Wilson would later say he left Princeton for government service in order to get out of politics.
No American statesman ever had a shorter second act. As late as October 1910, at age fifty-three and never having run for public office, Woodrow Wilson headed a small, all-male college in a quiet town in New Jersey; in November 1912, he was elected President of the United States. He swiftly went from near obscurity to global prominence, becoming the most powerful man on earth. He would contend that it had all been choreographed—not by himself, but by Himself.
“No man in supreme power in any nation’s life,” wrote the University of Virginia’s president Edwin A. Alderman, ”. . . was so profoundly penetrated by the Christian faith. He was sturdily and mystically Christian.” Born in a church manse, the son and grandson of Presbyterian ministers, Wilson did not often preach Christianity from his bully pulpit, but he ardently practiced it, infusing all his decisions with a piety and morality that were never lost on his constituents. His devotion was genuine. Twice a day he genuflected in prayer, he said grace before each meal, and he read a chapter of the Bible every night. He referred to Sunday as the Sabbath. And he appointed the first Jew to the Supreme Court.
Beholden to nobody, he had risen to his position through brainpower. Wedding the complexity of his intellect with the simplicity of his faith, placing principles before politics, he followed his conscience, never first checking public opinion. He spoke only for himself, and he found much of the nation agreeing with what he had to say. Arguably the least experienced person to hold the highest political office in the land, he was the Presidency’s most accomplished student of American history and politics. As such, he proved to be an unexpectedly evolved political animal, with a tough hide and sharp claws. In 1912 he entered one of the most thrilling races in the nation’s history and beat two worthy adversaries—a Republican incumbent, William Howard Taft, and the even more popular third-party candidate, Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive from the Bull Moose Party.
Ambrose Bierce had recently defined politics in his Devil’s Dictionary as “the conduct of public affairs for private advantage.” But Wilson defied such thinking. In the middle of a period of great economic inequality— when the nation’s richest 1 percent owned half its wealth—he unveiled his Presidential program. His “New Freedom” worked honestly to protect the less favored 99 percent of his countrymen. In order to actualize his slate of progressive reforms, he brought a bold new approach to his office, one in which the executive and legislative branches ...
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