It's almost 80 years since his death, but Woodrow Wilson has
never seemed more relevant. Wilson was the first American president
whose administration was defined by its foreign policy. Indeed, the
very word "Wilsonian" has come to mean a certain kind of foreign
policy, one promoting human rights, democracy, and collective
security. Much of President Bush's current activity, especially
regarding Iraq, is pure Wilsonian in its idealism.
Renowned historian H.W. Brands, who has written important
biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt, skillfully
tells the whole story of Wilson's life and casts him as one of the
most important US presidents. And Brands does all this in fewer than
200 pages, making his smooth-flowing narrative easily accessible to
the general reader.
Brands shows that Woodrow Wilson was destined to be an idealist.
His father was a Presbyterian minister, and young Woodrow would
practice speaking to an empty church after his father had preached
to a full one. At Princeton University, he excelled at writing and
oratory. He thought about becoming a lawyer, but hated law school
and quit before graduating. Wilson's true love, Brands stresses, was
studying how governments functioned.
Wilson's early career was as an academic, teaching at a couple of
colleges before landing the presidency of Princeton in 1902. Brands
describes how Wilson's type of liberalism fitted in perfectly with
the reformist attitudes of the age: He championed education and
spoke out against corruption in high places. With impeccable
progressive credentials and no political baggage, he was selected by
the Democratic Party bosses as a potential presidential candidate
Brands points out the irony inherent in Wilson's selection by
these party bosses. Here was Wilson speaking out against political
corruption and party machines, yet he owed the beginnings of his
political career to the very machine politics he railed against.
The bosses were proven right: Wilson was a great candidate and
also, as Brands points out, a fortunate one. The Republicans split
prior to the 1912 election. When the party nominated William Howard
Taft, Teddy Roosevelt bolted and ran as a third-party candidate.
With the opposition divided, Wilson was elected.
Brands skillfully depicts Wilson as the last political champion
of the Progressive era. Wilson's reformist victories included the
Clayton Anti-Trust Act, which established criminal penalties for
corporate predatory practices. …