More significant, recent books have helped correct some of the caricatures that clung to him even in his own time: Wilson the schoolmaster, Wilson the moralist, Wilson the inflexible idealist. None of these epithets pack quite the punch they once did, thanks to subtly shaded portrayals by Louis Auchincloss, H.W. Brands and others — most notably John Milton Cooper Jr., whose masterful biography of Wilson, published in 2009, reflects an unrivaled expertise on the subject.
Why all this interest in Wilson? Granted, it falls well short of a vogue — unlike, say, Theodore Roosevelt or Harry Truman, Wilson is something of an acquired taste — but taken together, these signals suggest that Wilson, a full century after his first inauguration, remains relevant. As one of the first truly modern presidents, whose creations (the Federal Reserve ) and ambitions (collective security through a League of Nations) still help determine our national direction, he is a figure of enduring importance — and a certain ambiguity. There has never been much settled wisdom about him.
In part, that is because some of the tensions that plagued his presidency — particularly the one between principle and pragmatism in U.S. foreign policy — are perpetual and defy resolution. It is also because the man himself was something of a cipher: “There has been no great man,” an acquaintance of Wilson observed, “of whom so much has been written, but of whom personally so little has been correctly known.”
The latest attempt to assess — or really, to firmly establish — his significance is “Wilson,” by A. Scott Berg, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1998 biography of Charles Lindbergh. Berg likens his approach to impressionism, with its use of “thousands of dabs of paint,” and here he paints a vivid tableau. Indeed, color abounds in this book: Railcars are “furnished with big easy chairs, footstools, and cushions, in rose brocade”; people drink “high tea with yellow Devonshire cream”; Edith Wilson’s bedroom is “decorated in ivory with a pink bedspread.” But the picture Berg is most interested in rendering is, in a way, abstract: the interior Wilson. “I have never seen a book that captured the emotional side of the man,” Berg said in a recent interview. “I wanted to do that book.”
He writes with sensitivity and acuity about that side of Wilson, without indulging in cheap psychologizing. (None other than Sigmund Freud failed this test; in a collaboration with the diplomat William Bullitt, a Wilson detractor, Freud put his name to a much and rightly maligned study of Wilson’s personality.) “Beneath [Wilson’s] stern ministerial appearance,” Berg writes, “churned a turbulent emotional life.” Wilson himself conceded as much. “I have the uncomfortable feeling that I am carrying a volcano about with me,” he told his first wife, Ellen. “My salvation is in being loved. . . . There surely never lived a man with whom love was a more critical matter than it is with me!”