Latest in the American Presidents series, profiling a respected but now overlooked chief executive.
“Woodrow Wilson lived too long and then died too soon,” writes Brands (History/Texas A&M; The Strange Death of American Liberalism, 2001, etc.). Born before the Civil War, Wilson lived into the mid-1920s, long enough to see the emasculation of his pet project, the League of Nations. By this account, Wilson was an accidental politician, roped into running for New Jersey office after he lost a long battle as president of Princeton over where to locate the new graduate school. Elected by a commanding margin after wowing listeners with his fine oratory, Wilson earned good marks as governor, though his handlers weren’t pleased when he demolished former patron Boss Smith’s political machine. He was recruited to run as a Democratic candidate for president in the 1912 election, the first, Brands writes, “in which party primaries played an important role.” Lifting a page from Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson pledged not just to rein in the trusts but to destroy them, a sentiment that played well to Progressive audiences. But Brands suggests that Wilson was not particularly popular once in office, especially after he went back on his pledge to keep America neutral in WWI. Neither was he an effective lawmaker, perhaps because he was severely depressed following his wife’s death in 1914. When Wilson suffered a massive stroke in 1919, second wife Edith and confidantes in the White House “conspired to shield the public from full knowledge of the president’s disability.” Brands argues that Wilson might have been better served had he died as a result of that stroke, “a martyr to the cause of world peace,” rather than living to see that cause jeopardized by the Versailles Treaty and the economic ruin it wreaked on Germany, opened the way for WWII.
A worthy overview that acknowledges Wilson’s considerable strengths and his many limitations.