Pulitzer Prize-winning author A. Scott Berg has returned to bookshelves with a work of spectacular artistry and objective workmanship in drafting perhaps the most intimate portrait of Woodrow Wilson, the college history professor who made his own mark on history.Berg draws on unique sources left behind by the president’s doctor and daughter in a definitive piece, Wilson, which should be required reading for any course of study that examines American history after 1865.Few presidents carry a larger legacy than the 28th, who set precedents in dealing with domestic, international and constitutional crises — including presidential succession issues and government-sponsored surveillance programs — during two terms, beginning in 1913.As Berg illustrates so well, no chief executive, perhaps other than the liberal lions FDR and LBJ, can boast such progressive domestic reforms as those Wilson introduced to American life, many of which were marshaled through by his leadership, including a dramatic lowering of tariffs that mostly harmed consumers.He was motivated by many of the same principles that guided his pre-presidency as president of Princeton and governor of New Jersey.“Monopoly, private control, the authority of privilege, the concealed mastery of a few men, cunning enough to rule without showing their power” could rightly be claimed as the mantra of each of Wilson’s 16 successors.Wilson became the first president since John Adams to address a joint session of Congress to personally appeal for tariff reform.Among his other reforms were the Federal Reserve Act, which established the federal reserve and a supervision of banking still in use today, and the Clayton Antitrust Act, which set out terms regulating mergers and acquisitions.There was also Wilson’s role in the implementation of the 16th Amendment, which established the income tax in the United States.His greatest legacy, like most presidents since, lay in foreign affairs, where Wilson became the first to lead the United States in a truly international role during World War I and set the course for U.S. foreign policy for the next 100 years.“The world must be made safe for democracy,” Wilson proclaimed, while also drawing up a vision to end the war and ensure another never happened with the League of Nations, his dream that met demise in the U.S. Senate.Although the progressive Wilson worked to change world and domestic economic affairs, he was also terribly regressive, as Berg objectively explores in depth, in reconciling race relations and opportunity for black Americans, including accepting his postmaster general’s order that offices be segregated and affirming a congressional act to make interracial marriages illegal in Washington, D.C.But it is through that issue that a most captivating part of Wilson is introduced.Berg’s illumination of the president’s humanity is riveting, particularly his bitterness over the failure of the Senate to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and the pursuit and courtship of his first and second wives.His first wife, Ellen, died during his first term, leading the grief-stricken president to wonder if he was capable of carrying out his constitutional duties. And he had trouble focusing on the most important issues of his day while delivering entreaties to Edith Galt to “come into his heart and take possession.”“So began the most ardent chase of Wilson’s life,” Berg wrote. “His hundreds of letters to the former Ellen Axson had expressed every romantic sentiment he could conjure, but they were callow sentiments alongside the torrent of words that would now engulf Edith. … There was an urgency in the Tiger’s pursuit, fueled by the gratitude that he had been granted one final stab at love.”It would be Edith, along with Wilson’s doctor and his chief of staff, who would set precedent in dealing with a chief executive incapacitated by a debilitating stroke.For lovers of history, however, it will be the treasure that is Wilson that becomes infatuating.
by A. Scott Berg
Audiobook: Simon & Schuster Audio, $39.99; read by actor Jeremy Bobb
Meet the author
Berg will discuss Wilson at 7 p.m. Oct. 4, at Barnes & Noble, 7700 W. Northwest Highway, No. 300, Dallas; 214-739-1124.