Until A. Scott Berg’s magisterial new biography started getting attention, my image of President Woodrow Wilson was stuck in a few bullet points from a high school history. The stodgy-looking still photos, the progressive reforms, the failure to get the League of Nations approved by the Senate. That’s about it.
What Berg has powerfully focused us on is what a singular influence Wilson was in shaping the America we live in today. His flurry of progressive reforms included the 8-hour day, tariff reduction, the creation of the Federal Reserve, new antitrust crusades, the extension of the vote to women, and the appointment of the first Jew, Louis Brandeis, to the Supreme Court. His reforming spirit paved the way for the New Deal and the Great Society. Meanwhile, his World War I call to “make the world safe for democracy” launched a distinctive moral strain in American foreign policy that we see at work today.
Yet Wilson’s life was more than a tally of achievements. It’s a surprising, fantastic story.
In two years he went from being the President of Princeton to the Oval Office - the most meteoric rise in American history. He was a passionate romantic who courted his wife with thousands of love letters, only to fall into a deep depression when she died in his first term. Then, in an early 20th century version of the film plot for “The American President,” he courted another woman while in the White House and wed her 16 months later. Finally, there was Wilson’s collapse while trying to persuade the country to support the League of Nations, the scandalous concealment of his stroke by his wife and aides, and his leaving office a tragic, broken figure.
In our talk Berg gives us the 30 minute version of Wilson’s life and legacy, which he spent thirteen years working on. I also ask Berg about his own work habits, and how an author can possibly sustain the energy and passion to pursue a subject so intensively for so long. I think you’ll come away thinking that Wilson’s life was more than interesting, as is the life of his biographer.