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Wilson - A. Scott Berg This is a very long, sometimes tedious book, with excessive detail and description. However, in outlining the life of Woodrow Wilson from early childhood until his death, it is a monumental achievement. Unlike many biographies today which often go off into uncharted territory about people surrounding the person being featured, this book is truly about Wilson. It is a definitive biography of a man who was often misunderstood, whose legacies were only truly recognized in the aftermath of his Presidency. Occasionally, the author’s terminology seemed out of place, as with his use of terms like war on terror, the 99% vs the 1%, and the glass ceiling. There were no such terms during the time frame in which he writes and may have been used to point to a particular political persuasion. Finally, because the narrative was a bit too long, it was sometimes repetitive. Often, I wished I was a historian so that I would have had a better grasp of the enormous amount of information presented. Perhaps an audio was not the best venue for this book, since it was not easy for me to refer back to passages and research those I needed to learn more about.
When Thomas Woodrow Wilson was 17, he believed he had not accomplished enough with his life. What a contrast with the youth of today who often balk at becoming independent as soon as they are able. Wilson was successful at almost anything he tried. He was a scholar, educator, orator, musician, singer, athlete, leader, and debater. He needed no teleprompter and was a wonderful extemporaneous speaker. His health, however, was always very fragile and he required frequent vacations and periods of relaxation, using the game of golf, in later life, as a tool to enhance his mental state.
He was the quintessential liberal, interested in equal opportunity for all, making sure all religions were treated fairly, although his beliefs were peppered with a bit of hypocrisy since he believed that equality for the races was too divisive a problem to solve. Although he campaigned for social justice, he did not always practice what he preached. He did not allow blacks entry into Princeton, during his tenure there, and accepted few Jews or Catholics. He believed blacks were inferior and a woman’s place was in the home. He allowed the passage of Jim Crow laws. He segregated the army and federal government offices. Yes, he was interested in equal opportunity, but not when it came to ethnicity. He was against suffrage for women until very near the end of his second term as President. He was an academician and a scholar, more than a political scientist, and he governed with a stubbornness and arrogance that allowed very little compromise. He rarely forgave indiscretions against him, and more likely, he would hold an unending, lifelong grudge against the offender.
Wilson was well read and wrote beautifully with a prose that was often richly emotional and poetic in style. He was a pacifist, against cronyism and patronage, and adamantly antiwar. He appointed the first Jew to the Supreme Court, Louis Brandeis, established daylight savings time, was the first President to have an audience with the Pope, heralded in the vote for women and people of color near the end of his second term, (although poll taxes and other obstacles were placed in their way), reformed the workplace for woman and children, regulated work hours, established the Selective Service Act, during WWI, creating a national draft, allowed the limitation of free speech during wartime with the passage of the Sedition Act and Espionage act, allowed Daniel Guggenheim to fix prices through regulations so that war production efforts would be more successful, created The 14 Points which led to the League of Nations which was his ultimate achievement for the world, but not for the US, since Congress refused to ratify the treaty of Versailles, or to join the League. It was a terrible defeat for him at home. Among his many other accomplishments are reformation of the railroad system, the banking system, with the creation of the Federal Reserve, and breaking up the machine, the system of bosses that used to run elections.
When his first wife, Ellen, died of Bright’s Disease, he was bereft and often absent from the role he was elected to uphold. When courting his second wife, Edith Gault, his mind was not on the Presidency. He was distracted far more than he should have been and governed in absentia. He presided over a very divided country and an angry opposition party, similar to the situation today. He did not pretend to even want to do anything but his progressive agenda, and he believed he was always right. Edith was strong, deeply loyal and committed to him in every way, going so far as to cover up his illness during the last year of his Presidency, assuming responsibilities she had no right to assume and was incapable of making the proper decisions, leading to confusion and chaos in many parts of the government. Ellen, his first wife was a gentler woman who softened him, but Edith, was often harder than he was and blindly defended him, even when the country’s security and destiny were at stake. Probably, in matters he believed in, she would have been unable to change his mind anyway, and more often than not, she worshiped him and agreed with him unconditionally, when confronted or to save his face.
At the peace talks, at the end of WWI, the war to end all wars, it became clear that Wilson had suffered a health crisis. He did not always appear as mentally competent as he should have been. He ultimately conceded certain points that were not advantageous to the future of the world, but insured his League of Nations instead. According to historians, it was perhaps the extreme punishment meted out to Germany that ushered in the era that eventually led to World War II. The treaty hobbled Germany so severely; there could never be a recovery. The country could not sustain itself.
A little more than a year from the end of his second term, Wilson suffered from a debilitating stroke. The administration drifted with no master at the helm, other than his wife, Mrs. Edith Wilson, who was often vindictive and controlling, grasping far too much governmental power. Wilson’s debilitated condition was kept secret from all, even Vice President Marshall. Other than two or three people, Dr. Grayson, his physician, Ike Hoover, a gatekeeper, and Edith, his wife, the country remained in the dark regarding his condition. Edith became a shadow president, as a totally opaque rather than transparent government, operated in secrecy. She was not equipped to handle the responsibilities she took on when she decided to protect Wilson above the needs of the country, and as a result, the government faltered due to a lack of information, and Wilson’s reputation suffered greatly. Laws were later passed to prevent such a situation from ever occurring again, although, it has been said that Nancy Reagan was the shadow president protecting her husband, Ronald Reagan, as he lost his grasp on things because of Alzheimer’s disease, at the end of his Presidency.
Athough he would have liked to, Woodrow was unable to run for a third term. He was no longer held in high esteem by many and his health, though he tried to ignore it, had failed as did his mental state. In addition to the stroke, his eyesight had failed, and he felt helpless and useless. He was ill during much of his presidency, but the extreme nature of his illnesses had never been divulged by those surrounding him, rather he was protected completely. In the world of today, Wilson would never be electable because he would have been deemed unfit to carry out the responsibility of the office. He suffered strokes and GI ailments which often incapacitated him. He had a nervous disposition, was very emotional and often cried. He became depressed when he wasn’t received positively or when facing personal trauma and required a good deal of medical attention and stroking. His physical and mental state were entirely hidden from the public by an adoring, loyal following.
At the conclusion of the book, it is hard not to draw a comparison between Wilson and the current President , Barack Obama. Both came from the academic world, were largely unprepared for the job, had little management experience, although Wilson ran Princeton well, reforming its curriculum and raising its stature, both were briefly in elected office before running for President, Wilson as NJ Governor and Obama as Illinois Senator, and both were stubborn and a bit arrogant, believing they knew what was good for the people, more than the people knew what was good for them. Both were quick to judge and slow to forgive infractions, or admit mistakes, or correct them. Both endangered America’s leadership position in the world because they believed they had the only right way and pursued it unflinchingly.

While Wilson might be called a racist for his beliefs, Obama has fomented a racial divide in the country which it was hoped he would eradicate with his ascension to the Oval Office. It would seem that Obama has taken a page from Wilson’s playbook and is attempting to do what Wilson could not, which is to destroy the Republican Party and all opposition to his policies. Both Wilson and Obama had toothy smiles and large ears, both were very eloquent and charismatic, rising from obscurity in the world of academia to the highest office in the land, without proper background or experience. Both largely ignored any opinion that was not their own. Wilson will always be remembered for his efforts to create The League of Nations which he failed to convince his own country to join and Obama will be remembered for the Affordable Care Act which failed to get a majority of public support and caused tremendous hostility and gridlock in the government. Both faced a divisive Congress ruled by the opposite party which prevented them from actually doing as they pleased. Obama consorted with the very kind of bosses in Chicago that Wilson abhorred and both bent the rules when it suited their purposes. They were willing to rescind and reverse former statements to fit the moment. Both were able to make promises and feel no remorse at breaking them, using those promises to achieve their goals. They justified their behavior because they believed the means justified the end result. Both were solitary persons, preferring their own company and that of a select few. Wilson was more humble and tried to embrace everyone, although unevenly, while Obama did not often cross the aisle to engage any outsiders, and both proclaimed they would listen to everyone and all ideas, but when it came right down to it, they believed they were right, even when others differed with them, and they marched to the beat of their own drummer, for better or worse.
In conclusion, this book will not only enlighten the reader about Woodrow Wilson, but it will also illuminate the current state, more clearly, of our political condition.