A Noble Failure: Woodrow Wilson’s Presidency Considered

tags: Woodrow Wilson



Michael Kazin’s latest book is American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation. He teaches history at Georgetown University and is editor of Dissent.

Few Americans who care about their nation’s past think fondly of Woodrow Wilson; the ahistorical majority probably doesn’t think about him at all. Six presidents in the 20th century managed to win re-election; Wilson is the only one who lacks a distinguishing trait—such as FDR’s perpetual smile, Nixon’s angry paranoia, or Reagan’s hearty optimism—or a nickname—like Dick, or Ike, or Bill. And he achieved nothing, like the New Deal or a conservative “revolution,” that would earn him either mass hatred or reverence today.

But Wilson’s time in office was, in fact, of enormous consequence. A devout Presbyterian and crusading liberal, he struggled mightily to put his grand ideals into practice. Yet his deeds had a way of defying his purposes, and he left the White House as an invalid and perceived as a failure....

A. Scott Berg is the latest writer to try to make sense of this complicated president—and to describe how his fifty-seven years before ascending to the White House might explain how he behaved when he got there....

Unfortunately... [Berg's] talent as a biographer tends to overwhelm his desire to be a historian. He gushes about his subject’s energetic eloquence, pointing out that Wilson was the last president to write all his own speeches. Yet fine orators were abundant in American politics at the turn-of-century America (William Jennings Bryan, Eugene Debs, and Robert La Follette made their reputations on the stump), and Berg fails to explain how Wilson soared above the rest....



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