By A. Scott Berg.
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
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
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
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