Katherine Bailey on Books  
Book Reviews, Literary Essays


Home

Reviews: Biographies Wilson by A. Scott Berg

Who is the happy warrior?

The two stanzas from Wordsworth's "Character of the Happy Warrior" that A. Scott Berg quotes at the beginning of his biography set the book’s tone. Berg’s subject, President Woodrow Wilson, is undoubtedly one of U. S. history’s titans:
Who is the happy Warrior? Who is he

That every man in arms should wish to be?

_It is the generous Spirit, who, when brought

Among the tasks of real life, hath wrought

Upon the plan that pleased his boyish thought:

……………………………………………………………………………

Who, whether praise of him must walk the earth

For ever, and to noble deeds give birth

Or he must fall, to sleep without his fame

And leave a dead unprofitable name---

Finds comfort in himself and in his cause;

And while the mortal mist is gathering, draws

His breath in confidence of Heaven's applause ...

In early December of 1918, just weeks following the World War I Armistice, one of history's most jubilant and patriotic send-offs took place near Hoboken, New Jersey, at Pier 4 of the New York Harbor network. President Woodrow Wilson - 61 years old and the 28th president of the United States - and his second wife, Edith Galt Wilson, boarded a steamship, the George Washington, for a "voyage of peace” to Europe. Already on board was a team of aides and experts, and never before had so much security surrounded an American president.

A Scott Berg, author of biographies of Maxwell Perkins and Charles Lindberg, among others, vividly portrays this spectacular scene following a compelling opening sentence to his 750-page work. "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."

As the presidential couple ascended the gangplank, a naval band struck up "Hail to the Chief," and then played the National Anthem once again. Standing on the bridge Wilson, clad in a bearskin coat, waved both hands and repeatedly raised his top hat to the crowds. Thousands of red-white-and blue flags and handkerchiefs were waved in his honor. Adulation for Wilson was not, however, as universal as the departure scene suggests. Emphatically Berg conveys this reality at the outset of the biography. One of the book's most prominent themes is Woodrow Wilson's capability to attract some and to repel others. In fact a substantial portion of the press, the public and politicians openly disparaged the President. Quoting a U. S. senator of the time, Berg writes, “Wilson had no friends, only slaves and enemies." For all his warmth and charm he was always more interested in what he was saying than in what you were saying.

Apparently Wilson was a paradox: "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 yet, upon occasion, illogical without more reason than intuition itself."

After the opening chapter Berg gets down to the traditional task of biography informing us of Wilson's ancestry, birth and early years. Born December 28th, 1856, in Staunton, Virginia, Wilson was the son of a Presbyterian minister, an "incomparable" man who dominated his boy's existence. Berg describes Joseph as a forceful and fiery orator both in and out of the pulpit - inspiring, highly literate, but possessing a "transient nature and restless soul." In true the- grass -is -always –greener- on- the-other- side style, he frequently changed churches. (As a boy Woodrow Wilson moved some 17 times in five years.)

Fortunately his mother, Jessie, was a "sweet, steadying" influence on her son. ”Jessie" notes Berg, "exuded more character than beauty – intelligence, strong spirit and doleful gray eyes.”

Wilson attended what was then known as the College of New Jersey, an institution with a homogeneous student body of 500 men. Berg comments that diversity meant only the presence of Episcopalians and the odd Methodist. It would quickly grow in enrollment and stature until it was recognized as a full-fledged university, Princeton University.

Freshman year he wrote: "The rule for every man is not to depend on the education which other men prepare for him, not even to consent to it, but to strive to see things as they are, and to be himself as he is."

Extemporaneous debate proved to be his forté. A half century after their Princeton years, a classmate remarked, "Mere records cannot produce the appealing tones of his voice and the fire in his eyes as he exercised his remarkable skill in debate." He withdrew from a planned debate when he learned he would be required to argue in favor of universal suffrage. Clearly Wilson harbored the white Southern aversion to the Negro voting. Earlier he had noted in his diary, "Universal suffrage is the foundation of every evil in this country." Another of the book's themes is Woodrow Wilson's reluctance to accept black and white equality. He was not hostile to African Americans as long as they served him as butlers, maids and chauffeurs. Throughout his adult life he would never hesitate to make “darky” jokes in public. “They were never malicious,” notes Berg, “though the humor was based on the Negro being slow in body and mind, the stereotype of the day.” During treaty negotiations following the War, Wilson would express his shock that the French had placed their Negro soldiers shoulder to shoulder with whites.

His four years at Princeton transformed Wilson from a sheltered and aimless boy from the South into a thoughtful young man with ambition and vision - even an outlook on the world and the place he hoped to hold in it. With admirable imagery Berg states that "Upon leaving Princeton, Wilson embarked on a ten-year odyssey - stopping anxiously at numerous ports but never dropping anchor."

Although by the time he graduated college his affinity for politics – his aspiration to become a U.S. senator – dominated his thoughts, he was unable to put himself on a direct path to achieve this goal. He filled the decade following his undergraduate years with study in two graduate schools, a brief law career, teaching at three different colleges, writing two books, marrying and fathering three daughters.

In wooing his first wife, Ellen Axson, he indulged in one of the most expansive love correspondences in history. He and Ellen exchanged thousands of passionate letters. Not only was Ellen the mother of his three children, she was a staunch enabler of her husband’s career, for example, moving house cheerfully as his pursuits dictated. Sadly, Ellen died 14 months after the family of five moved into the White House. Wilson’s deep need for female companionship is another of the vivid threads weaving through the biography as is Wilson’s consuming ambition to make his mark in the world. Though his grief over Ellen’s death was genuine, he re-married only 18 months after her death.

Edith Bolling Galt was friend and companion to Wilson’s cousin, Helen Bones, who frequently resided at the White House, often acting as the President’s hostess. When Edith and Woodrow met she was a 43-year-old, wealthy Washington widow. He was 59. A capable, if not well-educated woman, she possessed an exuberant personality and carried herself with a regal bearing. The two were married on December18th, 1915 in a ceremony at Edith’s Washington home. Arguably, no other first lady in U. S. history would wield as much political power as Edith would late in her husband’s 2nd administration when his mind and body had deteriorated.

Following 12 years as a professor at Princeton where his classes were the most popular on campus, Wilson was elected the University’s 13th president, the first who was not an ordained minister. Amazingly, while carrying out the relentless demands of the presidency, he continued to teach his classes. During the four years he served as president he significantly raised the standard of scholarship. This, combined with his impressive fund-raising efforts completely altered Princeton’s national reputation.

His success won recognition in the world beyond the ivory tower. His name began appearing in New York newspapers as a possible candidate for President of the U. S. The New York Evening Post floated his name as the Democratic candidate for the U. S. senate from New Jersey. Still other rumors suggested he would become New Jersey’s next governor.

It was during his tenure as president of Princeton that Wilson’s health problems grew more serious. Up to this time there had been issues with his fragile health in general – stress-induced stomach and neurological disorders. At age 35 while teaching at Princeton he suffered a small stroke. In his late forties he required a long hospital stay and a five-week convalescence in Florida. Gastric disturbances and hernia surgery had caused phlebitis in his leg. Five days following his inauguration as President of the U.S., early in 1913, the strain of work caused more neurological and visual impairments. Predictably he suffered an acute “breakdown” in reaction to Ellen’s death. To Berg’s credit, the dramatic portrayal of Wilson’s failing health is one of the book’s best features.

In chronicling his subject’s relentless and portentous infirmities, Berg writes a great deal about Dr. Cary Grayson, the navy physician assigned to the President on his first day in office. Berg remarks: “[The meeting of Wilson and Grayson] began what would become the most constant and intimate relationship the President would have with a man for the rest of his life – a unique affiliation characterized by trust beyond that of any official, as Dr. Grayson would literally have his hand on the President’s pulse and, thus, on the well-being of the world.”

The free time they spent together –playing golf, theatergoing twice a week, and dining out contributed to Wilson’s well-being both physically and mentally. Golf, in fact, became Wilson’s second religion, and when his workload allowed he played every day. Wilson and the other men who played essential roles as Presidential aides and advisors gradually became estranged, but Dr. Grayson remained his loyal friend until Wilson’s death.

Joseph Tumulty, a New Jersey state legislator who had been a trusted advisor during Wilson’s brief tenure as governor of New Jersey, became the President’s invaluable Chief of Staff as well as a close friend to the whole Wilson family. Ellen and Joe Tumulty were “fast friends.” The elitist Edith Wilson, however, considered Tumulty “common.” After Wilson had retired from the presidency, he and Tumulty fell out over a fabricated message.

Berg explains that Colonel Edward Mandell House was President Wilson’s most trusted confidant. In access and influence he outranked everybody in Wilson’s Cabinet including the Secretary of State. “In matters of diplomacy, he had carte blanche to speak for Wilson, and he became America’s first modern national security adviser,” notes Berg. Edith’s evaluation of Colonel House, negative as usual, was that he lacked character, that he was a “weak vessel.”

House played an integral role in the peace talks following the war. So vast and intricate were the issues to be resolved – mainly with England, France, Italy and Russia – that Wilson needed skilled collaboration. Thus he granted House immense authority in the negotiations. Undermining Wilson, one American newspaper described House as “the brains of the Commission.” Steadfast advisors to the President, however, let him know that House was feeding self-serving tips to the press. Gradually Wilson trusted House less and less, believing his former best friend had exceeded his brief, making and announcing decisions that had not been vetted by him. Wilson dramatically over-reacted, announcing that he never wanted to see House again. When in July, 1919, President and Mrs. Wilson departed Paris by train for their return trip to the U. S., Colonel House was merely another face in the crowd of thousands gathered to see the Wilsons off.

At times Wilson’s behavior at the Peace Conference suggests that he was mentally unhinged. When he had periods of speaking nonsense, Dr. Grayson suspected another “cerebrovascular accident.”

On the other hand,he could speak so articulately and eloquently, a skill, no doubt, indelibly etched somewhere in his brain. He predicted quite accurately that when the Germans got their hands on the Treaty of Versailles with its intimidating 440 articles, he would become the object of their animosity. Berg quotes Wilson: “The terms of the treaty are particularly severe…but I have striven…to make them fair and at the same time compel Germany to pay a just penalty. However I fully realize that I will be the one on whom the blame will be placed. In their hearts the Germans dislike me because if I had kept America from entering the war, Germany would have defeated the Allies.”

As history has demonstrated, the Treaty of Versailles proved to be a cause of the next world war. The exactions of the treaty were more than Germany could bear; the loss of treasury and territory that might replenish it destroyed their country. In the end the U.S. Congress failed to ratify the Versailles Treaty, and it refused to join Wilson’s League of Nations, to him the most significant of the treaty’s articles.

One of President Wilson’s most shining moments occurred when he dedicated a small cemetery, just west of Paris, for 1,500 U. S. infantry men who died fighting in France. Berg recounts: “Extemporizing from notes, he delivered one of the most poignant speeches of his life. The notes proved to be an essential crutch, for the pathos of the occasion almost broke the President’s self-control. ‘No one with a heart in his breast, no American, no lover of humanity,’ he began ‘can stand in the presence of these graves without the most profound emotion. These men who lie here are men of unique breed. Their like has not been seen since the days of the Crusades. Never before have men crossed the seas to foreign lands to fight for a cause which they did not pretend was peculiarly their own, but knew was the cause of humanity and mankind’.’’

Berg concludes his monumental work with a portrayal of Woodrow Wilson’s death and funeral in 1923. He died, declaring he “was ready,” with Edith, his daughters, and Dr. Grayson at his side. A few months prior to his death he had told his daughter, Margaret, that he thought it was best after all that the U.S. did not join the League of Nations: “…Our entrance into the League at the time I returned from Europe might have been only a personal victory…now, when the American people join the League it will be because they are convinced it is the right thing to do…Perhaps God knew better than I did after all.”