New Woodrow Wilson bio presents a complex figure

AP News
Posted: Nov 06, 2009 7:26 AM

"Woodrow Wilson" (Knopf, 704 pages, $35), By John Milton Cooper Jr.: Soon after he was elected president in 1912, Woodrow Wilson told a former colleague at Princeton University that all of his preparation for office was in the domestic sphere and it would be "an irony of fate" if his administration were to be consumed by concerns over foreign policy.

Wilson's comment was prophetic. After a productive first term highlighted by a wave of progressive legislation, he shifted his focus to America's entry into World War I.

But his idealistic vision for world peace fell apart when Congress refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles or allow the U.S. to join the League of Nations. Cooper, acclaimed as the nation's leading Wilson scholar, has detailed the triumphs and tragedy of the 28th president in a long-awaited biography that draws readers through an era of political and industrial change from which the United States emerged as a world power.

The author paints a portrait of a president who ranks on most lists of the 10 greatest. With his long nose, large jaw and pince-nez eyeglasses, Wilson may have projected an image of a dour, uptight product of his Presbyterian upbringing. Cooper, however, reveals a good-natured man who could display strong emotions, an ardent lover whose interests included theater, movies and sports.

The author notes Wilson's penchant for delegating authority to cabinet members, an approach that often stood him in good stead. His first-term accomplishments included creation of the Federal Reserve, introduction of the income tax and adoption of landmark antitrust legislation.

The outbreak of war in Europe coincided with the death of his wife, Ellen. Early on, Wilson urged Americans to adopt a neutral stance and said the best possible outcome was "a peace without victory" that would prove just and lasting.

Instead, Germany's removal of restrictions on submarine warfare in 1917 persuaded Wilson to lead the country into war, a decision he spelled out in an address to Congress that Cooper characterizes as the greatest presidential speech since Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address.

Even as America's doughboys entered the fray, Wilson continued to advocate a nonpunitive peace. Physically and emotionally fatigued, he spent nearly half of 1919 at the Paris peace talks to try to craft an agreement that would reflect the ideals he spelled out in his Fourteen Points.

Wilson's final battle came when he returned home and sought to enlist public support for the treaty and for U.S. membership in the League of Nations. He traveled by rail across the country to press his case, only to suffer a stroke that left him an invalid. Delusional and subject to mood swings, he remained in isolation in the White House where his second wife, Edith, restricted access to him.

Although he understands Edith Wilson's behavior, Cooper says she did her husband a disservice by ruling out his resignation even as his mental instability led him to reject a compromise that would have permitted U.S. participation in the League. The author suggests that had Wilson stepped down as president, the outcome would have been different and the world would have been better off.

Cooper draws on a broad range of sources including diaries, memoirs and letters that Wilson exchanged with his wives and wrote to a woman with whom he was infatuated during his marriage to Ellen. As to whether Wilson had an adulterous relationship with Mary Peck, the author concludes that no one can say for sure.

Cooper properly faults Wilson for his failure to confront segregation, growing violence against blacks and denials of civil liberties to war opponents. While noting that Wilson's southern birth and upbringing shaped his approach to race, Cooper says his failure of moral conscience remains puzzling.

This very readable biography provides a fascinating portrait of a complex figure who began his presidency as a domestic reformer but will be best remembered for pushing America outward toward an internationalism from which there ultimately could be no turning back.