On Political Books

September/ October 2013 What Tea Party Republicans Can Learn From Woodrow Wilson

Averse to compromise, he died a bewildered and broken man.

By Michael O'Donnell

But a principled politician can resemble a stampeding elephant: nothing will stand in his way, and eventually he ends up lost with two broken tusks. Wilson ran himself ragged in support of the treaty, and died bewildered and angry that all had gone wrong. Professor Joseph Nye recently observed that Wilson’s presidency resembles George W. Bush’s: high moralism, big risks, more vision than execution. And Wilson’s stubborn insistence on establishing the League at Versailles echoes Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s push to streamline the military during the Iraq War. Others disagreed, circumstances changed, it wasn’t the right time—but the secretary forged on. Moreover, Wilson’s utter refusal to compromise over the Versailles Treaty sounds like nothing in politics today so much as Tea Party intransigence. That Wilson was debilitated by illness during the last phase of the treaty debate is some excuse, but he showed little flexibility even while he was well.

Berg’s Wilson offers an intimate portrait of this aloof president. John Milton Cooper’s Woodrow Wilson (2009) is more focused and sharply analyzed, but contains less detail on Wilson the man. Berg is particularly strong in narrating certain dramatic set pieces: the cabinet meeting that led to war; the address to Congress asking for a declaration; the whistle-stop tour in support of the treaty; the stroke that ultimately incapacitated him. (That is one area where Wilson’s judgment—or that of his inner circle—was not infallible. It was a disservice to the country that Wilson lingered in office for a year and a half rather than resigning.)

Nevertheless, the book does have its faults. Although Berg appropriately criticizes Wilson for the Red Scare and for rigidity over the League, he at times gets caught up in the mystique of the professor-president in the top hat and pince-nez. This enchantment manifests itself in an inordinate number of superlatives: in Paris Wilson received “the most massive display of acclamation and affection ever heaped on a single human being”; of the League, “No man had ever gone to such lengths for a cause”; Wilson’s letters to his wife comprised “one of the most expansive love correspondences in history.” When Berg is not coming up with sentences like these, he is quoting like-minded stuff from others. The effect is to make the reader question his judgment. It is a small detraction from a very good book, but it is more than mere semantics. Something about Woodrow Wilson causes us to get carried away—to elide the details and embrace the man of vision and big ideas. Sometimes a politician must take a stand: few voters will support a candidate who won’t. But Wilson is the president who stood and stood until he fell down on his face. Sometimes a politician needs to compromise.

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Michael O'Donnell , a frequent contributor to the Washington Monthly, is a lawyer living in Chicago with his family.

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