A noted Woodrow Wilson expert comprehensively examines the life and career of America’s 28th president.
Generally acknowledged among the country’s great presidents, Wilson’s proper placement within the pantheon nevertheless creates more argument among scholars than perhaps any other. While acknowledging Wilson’s dismal record on race and civil liberties, Cooper (History/Univ. of Wisconsin; Reconsidering Woodrow Wilson, 2008, etc.) comes down firmly on the president’s side, rejecting the caricature of the high-minded intellectual out of his depth in the messy political arena. The author believes, as Wilson himself did, that his academic background—first as an exceedingly popular professor, then as Princeton’s reform-minded president—prepared him perfectly for the political battles he later faced as New Jersey’s governor and, of course, as president. Above all, Cooper stresses, Wilson was a teacher, his goal not so much to inspire the American people in the fashion of his greatest rival, Teddy Roosevelt, but rather to educate them, appealing to public opinion through his writing and oratory. Domestically, he enacted progressive legislation that prefigured some of the New Deal. After maneuvering to keep the country neutral during World War I—he was narrowly reelected on the slogan, “He kept us out of war”—Wilson proved a surprisingly energetic commander in chief. By the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, he was arguably the world’s most acclaimed leader, but from there his presidency turned tragic. In part because of his disinclination to compromise, but largely because of a debilitating stroke that literally paralyzed his last year and a half in office, Wilson failed to persuade Congress to ratify the Treaty of Versailles or to join the League of Nations. Cooper is especially good on this “worst crisis of presidential disability in American history”; Wilson’s uncommonly close attachment to the women in his life; his Civil War–era boyhood in Virginia; the battle for educational reform at Princeton; and the role played by important presidential advisors like Joe Tumulty and Colonel House.
Cooper exhibits complete command of his materials, a sure knowledge of the man and a nuanced understanding of a presidency almost Shakespearean in its dimensions.