O’Toole (When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt After the White House, 2005, etc.) adds to a long list of Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) biographies with a skillfully crafted account of the president’s life and legacy.
As suggested in the title, Wilson considered himself the moral conscience of the United States, and he acted accordingly. After earning a doctorate in political science from Johns Hopkins, he went on to serve as president of Princeton University, a position he approached with an inflexible certainty that he would carry into the White House, a stance that eventually led to impassioned opposition from many fellow Democrats and almost all Republicans. The author narrates the saga chronologically, and her use of anecdotes, foreshadowing, and foils to Wilson results in a lengthy book that is nonetheless a compelling page-turner; the author also has a pleasing prose style. As expected, the majority of the chapters focus on the debate over whether the U.S. should surrender its neutrality to enter World War I, the progress of the war from an American perspective, and the agonizing aftermath as Wilson failed to push through the League of Nations he conceived. Though not exactly groundbreaking news, many readers will still be shocked by the massive coverup of Wilson’s declining health by his wife, Edith, and some of his advisers. O’Toole softens her subject’s hard edges by showing his romantic side with his first wife, who died young, with Edith, and with his three daughters. In addition, the author pays adequate attention to Wilson’s early domestic legislative achievements as well as his tendency toward racism and his overbearing public certainty, which he maintained despite frequent private doubts. Many of O’Toole’s revelations break fresh ground, including the unreliability of Wilson adviser Edward M. House as a source. A bonus derives from the obvious relevance of the Wilson presidency to 21st-century politics. The ways in which Wilson expanded presidential powers bring to mind presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump.
A balanced, welcome new addition to the Wilson shelf.