A Man of His Times A. Scott Berg's 'Wilson' Explores Its Subject Thoroughly but with Few New Insights

Article excerpt

"WILSON"

By A. Scott Berg.

Putnam ($40).

Woodrow Wilson died Feb. 3, 1924, barely seven months after his successor, Warren Harding, expired in a San Francisco hotel room following an arduous tour that took him as far as Alaska.

In contrast to the feeble and gaunt Wilson, crippled by a serious stroke, Harding appeared vigorous and healthy at his 1921 inauguration, where he vowed a "return to normalcy" after the ordeals of World War I, as if normalcy meant corruption and incompetence in high places.

Whatever the cause of Harding's rapid decline -- bootleg liquor, sex in a White House closet or anxiety over betrayals by his pals -- it revealed how far the government had fallen after the lofty Wilson years.

The 28th president was a crusader with the determination of a religious zealot who led the isolationist United States on to the world stage when he convinced the nation to fight Germany in 1917. The gamble worked.

With American intervention, Germany was defeated in just over a year.

Wilson had changed history, elevating him among historians to the pantheon of great presidents, a lofty stature that has inspired hundreds of them to produce a Niagara Falls of material. One biography fills nine volumes. Does the world need another one?

A. Scott Berg, best known for his 1998 biography of Charles A. Lindbergh, thinks so. He said the effort took him 13 years, perhaps because it took that long to read the Wilson record, including long- distance psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud.

Mr. Berg was attracted by Wilson's story, one of the most remarkable in American history. How this academic with no political experience became president at a crucial moment in history is a fairy tale with a tragic ending. It contains the elements of fiction -- idealism, passion, illness, sorrow and, most of all, luck, which Wilson believed was divine intervention.

So Mr. Berg faced the considerable challenge of reinvigorating the thoroughly examined life of a man born in 1856 for 21st-century readers. What new relevance could he discover in a complex figure whose groundbreaking administration attracted so much analysis? The answer is: Not a heck of a lot.

Mr. Berg is interested in personalities, not policies. He brings nothing new to the conventional evaluation of Wilson the president (for the best treatment, read John Milton Cooper Jr.'s 2009 "Woodrow Wilson").

Focusing instead on the private life, the biographer casts his subject as the hero of a Shakespearean tragedy, a sympathetic treatment that softens Wilson's darker side.

He was a conflicted individual whose image of a stern moralizer masked an impulsive romantic with a sexuality that flirted with disaster. …

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