WOODROW WILSON by Louis Auchincloss


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Fleet narrative and clear-eyed psychology put our 28th president’s flawed administration (1913–21) into personal and global


A veteran man of letters, Auchincloss (Collected Stories, 1994, etc.) discriminates between two Woodrow Wilsons

(1856–1924): the cherished father, husband, and friend is trumped by the Presbyterian scion flexing a divine mandate to

implement the people’s will according to his own. Wives Ellen Axson (died 1914) and Edith Galt (married 1915) kept Wilson’s favor by making adulation of him their life’s work, whereas faithful secretary Joseph Tumulty and “second personality” Edward

House fell from grace, Auchincloss contends, as a consequence of Wilson’s conviction that disagreement equaled personal

hostility. Perhaps such an attitude should not be too surprising in a man who once declared, “Remember that God ordained that

I should be the next president.” Auchincloss analyzes brave accomplishments: quashing boss rule, “New Freedom” from

monopolies, establishing child-labor laws, erecting the Federal Reserve system, and, alas, establishing an income tax. But again

and again Wilson’s all-or-nothing dualism rendered compromise impossible—until compromise became unavoidable and he had

to capitulate wholesale. Auchincloss is a fair-minded critic, but even he sees Wilson misjudging the Great War’s threat:

campaigning for a second term in1916, Wilson proclaimed America “too proud to fight” in a “mechanical slaughter”—but by 1917

he had to declare war regardless. Auchincloss also deplores Wilson’s insistence on attaching his utopian League of Nations scheme

to a punitive Treaty of Versailles that he must have known no Republican Congress would ratify. Indeed, the national tour to win

public backing for the treaty induced the stroke that clipped Wilson’s career. One still blinks at the bizarre aftermath dramatized

here: only a cursory inquiry was made by Congress into the sick man’s fitness to govern, and for months Wilson’s wife was his

sole link to all government emissaries. No wonder his last word was “Edith.”

Its keen characters shrewdly quoted, this taut, fair presentation leaves the reader entertained by an informed storyteller, and

informed by an entertaining historian. (Book-of-the-Month Club/History Book Club selection)

Pub Date: April 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-670-88904-0
Page count: 128pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 2000


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