Woodrow Wilson's rise to president of the U.S. was as meteoric and improbable as Barack Obama's a century later. Within a decade of becoming president of Princeton University, Wilson "left politics," as he liked to quip, to be elected governor of New Jersey and then president of the United States. But that rise, as told in A. Scott Berg's new biography, Wilson (Putnam, 832 pages, $40), also concealed a squandered opportunity.
Born and raised in four Southern states, the 28th president was a son of the Confederacy who struggled to transcend his racist heritage. A brilliant orator, he couldn't muster the courage even to mention race in a nation that was then lynching blacks on a weekly basis. Instead, Wilson told "colored" jokes throughout his life, often in black dialect, without embarrassment. Almost his entire Cabinet were Southern segregationists, including his postmaster general, at a time when the postal service was the single largest employer of blacks in the country.
Measuring historic figures by modern standards is always tricky, and Berg treats Wilson's racism evenhandedly, trying to put it in context by noting he was "fairly centrist" in his racial beliefs. He's right, Wilson's racial attitudes were no more or less enlightened than those of any ordinary American in the early 20th century.
But then, as Berg's book shows, Wilson was no ordinary American. As a political science professor and then university president, he stood up to wealthy alumni to transform Princeton from a rich man's country club into a national model of higher learning. As New Jersey governor, he turned the tables on the political machine that put him in office to pass the most progressive election and civil-service reforms in the country. As U.S. president, he established the Federal Reserve, named the first Jewish justice to the Supreme Court, led the nation through its first world war and created the League of Nations, spiritual forerunner to the U.N.
In addition to Wilson's political career, Berg's biography reveals an intensely passionate man who overcame the grief of his first wife's death to woo and wed a widow 20 years his junior. She became virtually the nation's first woman president after he suffered a debilitating stroke. The greater tragedy is that a president who led the nation to war to make the world safe for democracy could not bring himself to make the nation safe for diversity.
GO: A. Scott Berg appears at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651, on Tuesday, Oct. 8. 7:30 pm. Free.