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  • What a Piece of Work Is a Man
  • Eric Rauchway (bio)
John Milton Cooper, Jr. Woodrow Wilson: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009. 702 pp. Photographs, notes, and index. $35.00.

In the 1912 election, the Democrats gained sixty-one seats to increase their majority in the House of Representatives and seven seats to get a majority in the Senate.1 Yet their presidential candidate, Woodrow Wilson, won fewer votes than William Jennings Bryan had in 1908, 1900, or 1896. Wilson also underperformed Democrats in Massachusetts, Ohio, Illinois, and elsewhere, becoming president only by the grace of God, or Theodore Roosevelt.2 Having squeaked into office, Wilson took a measured approach to his party's platform—he had described himself as "a Progressive with the brakes on"—and probably signed fewer progressive laws than Roosevelt would have.3 Wilson waged war with a surpassing and unnecessary carelessness for Americans' civil liberties and, by his intransigence, undermined his peaceable internationalism, in whose cause he lied to Congress. Even if it was not entirely his fault that the latter part of his presidency left the country in chaos owing to his mental incapacity, his inability to recognize his sad unfitness for office owed partly to his certainty of his own indispensability. Which is all to say that, even on the terms of his time, he escaped success; judging by our own standards we would wish additionally to count against him his tardiness in endorsing woman suffrage and the regulation of child labor, as well as his importation of racial segregation to the federal government. In short, on the merits, there is little cause to commend Wilson's record—and even less because he had so much intelligence and ability.

Wilson is a familiar character to academics and especially to historians: arrogant in his knowledge of administrations past and foreign, he thought he could do as well as a leader, not recognizing that there is a talent to management that has more to do with temperament than with comprehension. He took advice sparingly and made his own mistakes.

Yet Wilson has never lacked admirers. Maybe it is too much to call his sympathizers a "cult," as Thomas A. Bailey did, or to say that Wilson's fellow professors cover his misdeeds "as policemen do for policemen who go wrong," as Arthur Hadley did.4 But it is not wrong to note that there is something enduringly [End Page 294] academic about his appeal: the two causes Wilson promoted—pacific American internationalism and the adoption of parliamentary government in the U.S.—were and remain nonstarters and the kind of impracticalities that only intellectuals could adore.

The biographer of Wilson thus faces a challenge: how to make compelling an unattractive character who chalked up considerable failures? John Milton Cooper, Jr.'s, solution is to keep up a brisk narrative pace, concede that Wilson fell short by modern lights, and to make the best case for Wilson's modest accomplishments while letting the defeats speak for themselves.

Wilson's character set at an early age. He grew up surrounded by Presbyterianism, his loving family, and a group of slaves leased from parishioners. He was, a friend recalled, "very full of the South and quite secessionist" (p. 24). He was full also of self-confidence. He campaigned for Princeton valedictorian to an extent that annoyed faculty out of supporting him. And he was sure his misfortunes owed to the character failings of others: when his first cousin, Hattie Woodrow, spurned his suit, he concluded she was incapable of affection—although she would shortly marry her true love (p. 37). As a young academic, he realized he disliked "the tedious toil of what is known as 'research'; I have a passion for interpreting great thoughts to the world" (p. 51). He thought poorly of women; he feared teaching them was "relaxing [his] mental muscle" (p. 56). When not yet forty years old, he had already suffered a neurological incident, perhaps resulting from an arterial blockage—presaging the strokes that would exacerbate his tendencies to suspicion, blame, and self-righteousness.

As a political scientist, Wilson distinguished himself by arguing that the British parliamentary system was superior...


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