• A. Scott Berg
  • Putnam Adult
  • 832 pp.

The author's biography praises the 28th president, but does it question and clarify Wilson's legacy?

A biographer has a difficult task: he must get close enough to his subject to understand, but keep sufficient distance to criticize. A. Scott Berg admires, almost reveres, Woodrow Wilson, and the result is a book that too often praises President Wilson.

The most obvious example of this is in Berg’s chapter titles and headings, Bible quotations. The chapter on the Senate debate on the Versailles Peace Treaty, for example, is titled “Passion” and starts with the following quotation: “And they spit upon him, and tooke the reed, and smote him on the head.” Berg apparently wants us to view Wilson as Jesus, reviled and beaten by the Roman soldiers. Does he want us to think that Wilson was the divine Christ?

There are other examples, laced through Berg’s book. As Wilson prepares to call upon Congress to declare war upon Germany, Berg writes that “for this momentous address, he summoned the country’s most successful speechwriter, one of its foremost historians, one of its first political scientists, one of its most elegant wordsmiths, a spiritual thinker to provide moral grounding, and finally, his most trusted stenographer to get it all down on paper. There in the second-floor study, Woodrow Wilson sat alone.”

The problem is not only that Berg praises Wilson: he does not question Wilson. The most serious issue is the American entry into World War I. Berg does not pause to evaluate whether entering a European war, a war that would cost more than 100,000 American lives, was a necessary or appropriate response to the German sinking of a few ships. Similarly, he does not evaluate whether Wilson needed to impose a universal draft, whether Wilson needed to sign into law the espionage and sedition laws.

At the end of his book, Berg describes how Wilson was buried in the National Cathedral, and declares that the shadow “that spreads over the capital city of the United States of America is not just that of its national cathedral but increasingly that of the President who is buried therein. It is the lengthening shadow of Wilson.”

Berg is right, but he owes the reader a fuller explanation of why Wilson remains so important and controversial. Wilson is often mentioned, for example, in the editorials of George Will, as the father of the progressive view. Without giving the reader both sides of the issues Wilson faced, Berg is in no position to explain why Wilson is anathema to contemporary conservatives.

Bias is not the only problem with Berg’s book. He has not, in my view, adhered to the standards of scholarship. Indeed he has written a book that will be almost useless to future scholars.

One way scholars thank their predecessors and guide their successors is through the bibliography. Berg’s bibliography, however, is brief, and cites only books: not manuscripts, not newspapers, not learned articles. And Berg’s selection of books is limited. Berg does not cite in his bibliography two excellent one-volume biographies of Wilson: one by August Heckscher, published in 1991, and one by John Milton Cooper, published in 2009.

The front jacket proclaims that Berg “was the first biographer to gain access to two recently discovered caches of papers belonging to Wilson’s physician and to Jessie Wilson Sayre.” Berg’s bibliography, however, offers no clue to future historians as to where to find these materials: are they in a library? still in private hands? whose hands?

Scholars use notes to provide the sources for quotes and other facts. Berg’s book, however, has no note numbers and there are no page numbers within the notes. The notes for each chapter are divided into sections, and the sections are not indicated in the text. So the first task a reader faces, in trying to find the source for a particular quote, is guessing what section of the chapter he or she is reading. Is this the section on “WW eager to marry amid international turmoil?” Or “WW-EBW secret engagement?”

The second task facing the reader in the notes is deciphering Berg’s curious citation format. If the reader wants to find the source for Berg’s quote from the 1910 Democratic New Jersey convention, in which the chairman of the convention allegedly described Wilson as “the next President of the United States,” the right section is headed:

“WW nominated for Governor.”

That section reads as follows: “Tumulty, 16-8, 19-23, 26; RSB, III, 77-9; SA, 159; WW, “Acceptance Speech,” Sep. 15, 1910, 21:91-4; EWM, TWW, 110-1, 120; NY Evening Post, Sep. 16, 1910, cited in RSB, III, 81; “Jersey Republicans Name Vivian Lewis,” NYT, Sep. 21, 1910, 3.”

What are these sources? Tumulty, one assumes, is a reference to a book cited in the bibliography: Joseph Tumulty, Woodrow Wilson As I Know Him. RSB, per the abbreviations, is Ray Stannard Baker, so “RSB, III, 77-9” would seem to refer to volume three, pages 77-79, of Baker’s eight-volume Life and Letters of Wilson. And so on: it requires real determination to form the list of possible sources for each quotation.

In this case, the reader is in luck: the quotation appears in the first of these sources, Tumulty. But is Tumulty’s 1921 memoir a reliable source for what the state convention chairman said in 1910? The New York Times, the New York Tribune and the New York Sun are available online. None of these newspapers, in their reporting on the next day on the convention, mentions that the chairman described Wilson as the next president. It is possible that the newspapers omitted this detail and that Tumulty is right. But it seems more likely that Tumulty invented this detail, that Berg by quoting Tumulty gets it wrong.

This is a good example of why Berg’s scholarship is a problem not just for scholars: it is a problem for average readers. Time after time Berg relies on memoirs, written in the 1920s or 1930s, without any indication or consideration that they may not be reliable. Or he makes a statement that may or may not be true, because it is not supported by a source.

Berg tells us that the Los Angeles press, when Wilson visited to advocate the League of Nations, “was almost unanimously supportive.” He does not cite a single Los Angeles newspaper for this statement.

A disappointing book.

Walter Stahr is a Washington lawyer and the author of biographies of John Jay and William Henry Seward. He is now at work on a biography of Edwin Stanton. 


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