A. Scott Berg contributes his list of the recommends books about biographers for Wall Street Journal's "5 Best Books" column. See the full list here (subscription required)


Imagine a polarizing second-term president so idealistic that he threw out the rule book, waging a battle with Congress that nearly killed him. In an adaptation from his new book, the author recounts Woodrow Wilson’s epic 1919 crusade to get America to support the League of Nations.

Why Woodrow Wilson?” people invariably ask, when they hear I have spent the last 13 years writing a biography of our 28th president. The simple answer is that he was the architect of much of the last century and re-drew the map of the world. But my feelings for Wilson have always had more than a historical basis.

It all started when I was 15 and read a book about him, which impelled me to hang his picture on my bedroom wall. I’m pretty sure I was the only kid on the block who did. In the 48 years since, my budding obsession has only grown. I’m hardly alone in my fascination. Franklin Roosevelt idolized him. Harry Truman called him “the greatest of the greats.” And when Richard Nixon moved into the Oval Office, he requested Wilson’s desk for inspiration.

Wilson’s personality is cause for fascination. He was one of the most polarizing presidents in the nation’s history. As one of his earliest supporters, Oklahoma senator Thomas Pryor Gore, said, “Wilson had no friends, only slaves and enemies.” He didn’t enter politics until he was 53, when he was catapulted from the presidency of Princeton University to the governorship of New Jersey, only to be elected president of the United States—all within 25 months. America’s sole president with a Ph.D., he pushed through the most progressive political agenda the nation had ever seen.

In the middle of a period of great economic inequality—when the nation’s richest 1 percent owned half its wealth—Wilson unveiled his presidential program, the “New Freedom.” It aimed to protect the less favored 99 percent of his countrymen. “What I am interested in is having the government of the United States more concerned about human rights than about property rights,” he insisted.

Toward that end, he lost no time in creating the Federal Reserve Board, reducing excessive tariffs, reforming taxation, strengthening anti-trust laws, inaugurating the eight-hour workday, establishing the Federal Trade Commission, developing agricultural programs, improving rural life, and making corporate officers liable for the actions of their companies. Without so much as a breath of scandal, his New Freedom served as the foundation for the New Deal and Fair Deal and New Frontier and Great Society to come.

Nor is my lifelong interest in Wilson strictly emotional, though his personal story was plenty moving. Born and raised in the South, the son of a Presbyterian minister, he was sensitive to the ravages of the Civil War and Reconstruction. In wooing his first wife, the ethereal Ellen Axson of Rome, Georgia, he indulged in one of the most expansive love correspondences in history—thousands of letters so passionate, she said, they kept her “in an almost constant state of intoxication.” A talented artist, she abandoned any professional aspirations in order to serve her husband and raise their three daughters. She enabled his ambitions—all the way to the White House, in which she got to live only 17 months before dying there. Bereft beyond words, he contemplated resignation. But the war had just broken out in Europe, and what duty could not arouse in him, a friend did, by introducing him to a buxom, well-to-do, young Washington widow named Edith Bolling Galt.

The president fell in love at first sight. Despite the political and practical difficulties of courting from the White House, he romanced her, again through sheaves of letters and private meetings. Less than 18 months after burying the first Mrs. Wilson, he married the second. She worshipped him. And from that day forward she almost never left his side. Although she showed no prior interest in politics, when her husband fell gravely ill, Edith would find herself practically running the country and being considered the first female president.

My fixation on Wilson has been steadily refreshed over the decades whenever some current event reminds me that a political figure can maintain the loftiest ideals. But as Wilson demonstrated, time and again, one must be willing to fight for those beliefs. He brought a bold new approach to his office, one in which the executive and legislative branches co-operated the government. He literally walked the walk, violating a century-old tradition by appearing regularly before Congress—not just to deliver his State of the Union messages but whenever he had an important measure he wanted passed.

In 1917, Wilson’s powerful rhetoric convinced his isolationist nation to enter a war an ocean away—especially when he said, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” His goal was to construct a new world order around his Fourteen Points, the last of which sought to create a League of Nations. With this international parliament—whose goal was to maintain worldwide peace, resolving conflicts before they combusted into conflagrations—he believed mankind might have just fought the war to end all wars. In December 1918, amid the pandemonium of postwar victory, Wilson sailed to Paris to translate his Fourteen Points into the Treaty of Versailles. Except for a few weeks in the late winter, he remained there until July 1919, negotiating. He returned with a patchwork treaty in hand but his League of Nations intact. The strength of its Covenant was defined in Article X, which called for collective security, an international force to combat external aggression.

But the real battle lay before him. Constitutionally, the Senate holds the power to ratify treaties, and an exhausted Wilson found a polarized Congress also feeling marginalized. The Republican majority, under the leadership of Boston Brahmin Henry Cabot Lodge, stood dead set against the Treaty of Versailles even before it had learned its contents. After two frustrating months, Wilson realized his only hope of persuading the obstinate Senate to vote for the treaty was to plead his case directly to the people. Knowing the president’s alarming medical history—headaches, gastric distress, the occasional palsied hand, even the loss of vision—his physician and confidant, Admiral Cary T. Grayson, insisted that he was too run-down to withstand a marathon tour of the country. But Wilson could not be stopped.

“We are not put into the world to sit still and know,” Wilson had told his students back at Princeton. “We are put in it to act.”

And therein lies the reason Wilson matters most today: advocating domestic or foreign policy, he knew it was not enough for a president merely to propose, no matter how compelling his oratory. Like Barack Obama, he faced increasingly hostile partisanship; unlike Obama, he used every form of persuasion in his power, especially the practice of sustained dialogue.

Presidents earn their places in history not simply through their vision and eloquence but, ultimately, through their actions—what they accomplish when they take their feet off the desk and enlist support in their causes. No act in Woodrow Wilson’s life provides a greater window into his character—or a greater lesson for our current president—than his journey in the last days of summer 1919, when he embarked upon the most quixotic venture in America’s history since its founding—a 29-city barnstorming tour by rail to enlist the American public in his plan to end all wars.



“There has been a change of government,” declared Woodrow Wilson in his first sentence as president of the United States, one hundred years ago this Monday. Until 1937, when the 20th Amendment moved Inauguration Day to late January, chief executives took their oaths of office on March Fourth, a date that sounds like a command.

Nobody heeded this implied imperative more than Wilson: the 28th president enjoyed the most meteoric rise in American history, before or since. In 1910, Wilson was the president of a small men’s college in New Jersey — his alma mater, Princeton. In 1912, he won the presidency. (He made a brief stop in between as governor of New Jersey.) Over the next eight years, Wilson advanced the most ambitious agenda of progressive legislation the country had ever seen, what became known as “The New Freedom.” To this day, any president who wants to enact transformative proposals can learn a few lessons from the nation’s scholar-president.

With his first important piece of legislation, Wilson showed that he was offering a sharp change in governance. He began his crusade with a thorough revision of the tariff system, an issue that, for decades, had only been discussed. Powerful legislators had long rigged tariffs to buttress monopolies and to favor their own interests, if not their own fortunes.

Wilson, a Democrat, thought an economic overhaul this audacious demanded an equally bold presentation. Not since John Adams’s final State of the Union speech, in 1800, had a president addressed a joint session of Congress in person. But Wilson, a former professor of constitutional law (and still the nation’s only president with a Ph.D.), knew that he was empowered “from time to time” to “give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” And so, on April 8, 1913, five weeks after his inauguration, he appeared before the lawmakers. Even members of Wilson’s own party decried the maneuver as an arrogant throne speech.

The man many considered an aloof intellectual explained to Congress that the president of the United States is simply “a human being trying to cooperate with other human beings in a common service.” His presence alone, to say nothing of his eloquent appeal, affixed overwhelming importance to tariff reform. In less than 10 minutes, Wilson articulated his argument and left the Capitol.

The next day, Wilson did something even more stunning: he returned. On the second floor of the Capitol — in the North Wing, steps from the Senate chamber — is the most ornate room within an already grand edifice. George Washington had suggested this President’s Room, where he and the Senate could conduct their joint business, but it was not built until the 1850s. Even then, the Italianate salon, with its frescoed ceiling and richly colored tiled floor, was seldom used beyond the third day of March every other year, when Congressional sessions ended and the president arrived to sign 11th-hour legislation. Only during Wilson’s tenure has the President’s Room served the purpose for which it was designed. He frequently worked there three times a week, often with the door open.

Almost every visit Wilson made to the Capitol proved productive. (As president, he appeared before joint sessions of Congress more than two dozen times.) During Wilson’s first term, when the president was blessed with majorities in both the House and the Senate, the policies of the New Freedom led to the creation of the Federal Reserve, the Federal Trade Commission, the Clayton Antitrust Act, the eight-hour workday, child labor laws and workers’ compensation. Wilson was also able to appoint the first Jew to the Supreme Court, Louis D. Brandeis.

Even when the president became besieged with troubles, both personal and political — the death of his first wife; the outbreak of World War I; an increasingly Republican legislative branch; agonizing depression until he married a widow named Edith Bolling Galt — Wilson hammered away at his progressive program. In 1916, he won re-election because, as his campaign slogan put it, “He kept us out of war!” A month after his second inauguration, he appeared yet again before Congress, this time, however, to convince the nation that “the world must be made safe for democracy.” This credo became the foundation for the next century of American foreign policy: an obligation to assist all peoples in pursuit of freedom and self-determination.

Suddenly, the United States needed to transform itself from an isolationist nation into a war machine, and Wilson persuaded Congress that dozens of crucial issues (including repressive espionage and sedition acts) required that politics be “adjourned.” Wilson returned again and again to the President’s Room, eventually convincing Congress to pass the 19th Amendment: if women could keep the home fires burning amid wartime privation, the president argued, they should be entitled to vote. The journalist Frank I. Cobb called Wilson’s control of Congress “the most impressive triumph of mind over matter known to American politics.”

IN the 1918 Congressional election — held days before the armistice — Wilson largely abstained from politics, but he did issue a written plea for a Democratic majority. Those who had followed his earlier advice and adjourned politics felt he was pulling a fast one. Republicans captured both houses. With the war over, Wilson left for Paris to broker a peace treaty, one he hoped would include the formation of a League of Nations, where countries could settle disputes peaceably and preemptively. The treaty required Senate approval, and Wilson, who had been away from Washington for more than six months, returned to discover that Republicans had actively, sometimes secretly, built opposition to it — without even knowing what the treaty stipulated.

Recognizing insurmountable resistance on Capitol Hill, even after hosting an unprecedented working meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the White House, Wilson attempted an end run around the Senate: he took his case directly to the people. During a 29-city tour, he slowly captured public support. But then he collapsed on a train between Pueblo, Colo., and Wichita, Kan., and had to be rushed back to the White House. Days later he suffered a stroke, which his wife, his physician and a handful of co-conspirators concealed from the world, leaving Mrs. Wilson to decide, in her words, “what was important and what was not.”

In March 1920, having recovered enough to wage a final battle against the Republicans, Wilson could have garnered support for a League of Nations by surrendering minor concessions. But he refused. The treaty failed the Senate by seven votes, and in 1921, the president hobbled out of the White House as the lamest duck in American history, with his ideals intact but his grandest ambition in tatters.

Two months ago, our current president, facing financial cliffs and sequestration and toting an ambitious agenda filled with such incendiary issues as immigration reform and gun control, spoke of the need to break “the habit of negotiating through crisis.” Wilson knew how to sidestep that problem. He understood that conversation often holds the power to convert, that sustained dialogue is the best means of finding common ground.

Today, President Obama and Congress agree that the national debt poses lethal threats to future generations, and so they should declare war on that enemy and adjourn politics, at least until it has been subdued. The two sides should convene in the President’s Room, at the table beneath the frescoes named “Legislation” and “Executive Authority,” each prepared to leave something on it. And then they should return the next day, and maybe the day after that. Perhaps the senior senator from Kentucky could offer a bottle of his state’s smoothest bourbon, and the president could provide the branch water. All sides should remember Wilson and the single factor that determines the country’s glorious successes or crushing failures: cooperation.

March forth!


Asked about his own favorite biographies, A. Scott Berg supplied provided with commentary about the "books that influenced me most as I was turning a corner in my life, going from just reading biographies to writing them." See the full complete article here.