Monday, April 13, 2020

Wilson, by Scott Berg

   Woodrow Wilson is not a name that we mention very much these days and I had little interest in reading about him until I attended the last ALA Conference that met in Chicago in 2107.  I visited the Library of Congress booth while they were asking trivia questions.  The question was, “What was the first book printed in what was then called British North America?”  I knew the answer, The Bay Psalm Book printed in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1640.  My prize was an autographed copy of, Wilson by A. Scott Berg (New York, Putnam, 2013). This article is not meant to be a review of the book or his life, but a few of my reactions to his life and times of Wilson and the treatment Berg gave his subject.   Reading the book was low on my priority, until I was forced to spend many long hours at home because of the stay at home order.  The book is 818 pages and is slow reading.  It is not slow because it is poorly written, but because it made me think and want to look up more about what was being discussed.   I finally finished the book yesterday.

Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born December 28, 1856 in Staunton, Virginia and died February 3, 1924 in Washington, D.C.  He went to high school in Augusta, Georgia where his classmates included future Supreme Court justice Joseph Rucker Lamar, Wilson’s closet friend and next door neighbor and future ambassador Pleasant A. Stovall. Other students became a Columbia Law School dean, a congressman, and a newspaper owner. He did his undergraduate work at Princeton University (then called New Jersey College) and in 1883 entered Johns Hopkins University where he in 1885 his published the book, Congressional Government: A Study in American Politics, and earned in his Ph.D in 1886. He was on the way to becoming a well-known professor.  The future president was more learned in the history of American politics and law than any other president or member of Congress has ever been. In June 1902 he was appointed president of Princeton University.  At Princeton he proved he was both an able educator and administrator. He gained a national reputation and was nominated and elected to be governor of New Jersey.

This academic experience gave Wilson a broad view of the world and results of decisions.  Later in 1919 when he was negotiating the Treaty of Versailles he saw the forest while the Europeans saw the trees.  Henry Cabot Lodge, a Republican congressman and senator from Massachusetts was his political nemesis.  However, their first encounter was in 1879 when Lodge[1] was a junior editor for International Review and accepted for publication an article by Wilson, “Cabinet Government in the United States.”  Lodge when he was a congressman, was against almost every idea and legislation that President Wilson proposed.  Wilson was a Democrat; Lodge a Republican. Berg does not tell us very much about what Lodge believed in or what was his political agenda other than Lodge was against Wilson.

The first biography of Wilson was written by Josephus Daniels, The Life of Woodrow Wilson, 1856-1924(Chicago, 1924.)  This book was written with the cooperation of Wilson’s widow, Edith.  Daniels worked with Wilson as Secretary of Navy and as part of the team at the Treaty of Versailles.

Wilson’s story is sad.  His first wife died of kidney disease while living the White House.  His greatest accomplishments should have been the League of Nations and the war to end all wars.  Even though Wilson won the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize Congress never authorized U.S. membership in the League of Nations.  During his tenure women got the vote, but prohibition was passed. The country was struggling with the rights of Negroes.  Segregation, even in government was widespread. The country had labor unrest.  Wilson made the Federal government more powerful and established income taxes.  After he left office, the next president, Warren G. Harding, did his best to undo many of the positive programs that Wilson started. He had a stroke and the last years in office his was physically unable to perform most the presidential duties.

I was amazed at some of the details Berg  recounts.  Berg tells us what Wilson was thinking on a given day. I know that Wilson kept a diary and notes, but the level of detail is greater than I know about myself and what was in my head. Berg was writing more than 90 years after the events. The diaries are available in Library of Congress’s digital collection, but they are in shorthand and I couldn’t read them.

Many places Berg says what the Wilsons did in a day to the detail of what they ate for a meal.  Sometimes after dinner he played solitaire. He also liked to watch movies and had a projector in the White House. For a former professor I find it odd that Berg never reports that Wilson sat down with a good book.  When they moved out of the White House, they bought a house on S Street in Washington and one of requirements was that it needed to be big enough for his 8000 volume book collection.  With a collection that big I wonder why there is no mention of obtaining books, reading, or caring for the collection while he was in the White House.

When he was in good health, he would play a round of 9 hole golf in the morning after breakfast and before work.  Many times, his doctor said he needed a rest from work, and he took multiweek vacations.  During the vacations to recover his health he rode his bike and played golf. I realize that most of his health problems had very few treatments, but how does an academic turn off his mind and play 1700 rounds of golf during his presidency? When I discussed this with my friends, they said being president in an era of slower communication was not as taxing as today.  Wilson could afford to play golf and take a ride in a car for pleasure.

Who knows how different the world would be today if France, Italy, and the other European nations would have written a peace treaty that was less punitive and more peace building for Germany.  Would the hyperinflation in Germany of the 1920’s have ever happened?  Would Wilson’s ideas of world peace have prevented some wars? Would a stronger role of the US in the world stage have made this a better world?

Every book needs to offer thanks to those who helped the author.  Berg thanks the librarians at Library of Congress, the Newark Public Library, The Princeton University Library and other libraries.  But his story of how he got interested in Wilson is most endearing.  In 1965 Berg’s mother gave him a book about Wilson, titled, When the Cheering Stopped by Gene Smith.  Berg thanked his editor, Phyllis Grann.  When he first met with her, she asked how he got interested in Wilson.  Berg answered because of the book his mother gave him.  Grann said that in 1964 she was a secretary at Putnam who wanted to be an editor. Her boss gave her the manuscript of When the Cheering Stopped  saying, “Let’s see what you can do with this?” This was the first book that she edited.   Never underestimate the power of a book.  The gift in 1965 turned into a 48 year journey to get Berg’s book into my hands.

[1] Lodge earned his law degree (1874) and PhD (1876) from Harvard University. He was in favor of limits on immigration and in favor of entering World War I on the side of the Allied Powers. He was against joining the League of Nations; however, his objections were taken into account in the charter of the United Nations.  His grandson, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. was also a politician who represented Massachusetts, ran for vice president with Richard Nixon, and was appointed to several ambassador posts.