It took 13 years for A. Scott Berg ’71 to research and write Wilson, the new biography of America’s 28th (and Princeton’s 13th) president. Berg’s previous works include Max Perkins, Editor of Genius, for which he won a National Book Award, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lindbergh. A University trustee, Berg has taught biographical writing at Princeton. In writing his new book, he had access to two caches of material not seen before: correspondence belonging to Wilson’s daughter Jessie, and notes and letters of Wilson’s doctor and friend, Cary T. Grayson. Berg spoke with PAW about Wilson, the man, and Wilson, the book, published by Putnam this month.
Why do we still care about Woodrow Wilson?
In many ways, he invented the 20th century, providing a foundation for its economic and foreign policy. So, love him or hate him, Woodrow Wilson is part of our lives. In a larger sense, I think he will forever remain an icon of intellectualism and idealism in public service. No president’s dreams were as aspirational as his, and no president gave more of himself to realize them.
How did you become interested in him?
When I was 15, I read Gene Smith’s When the Cheering Stopped: The Last Years of Woodrow Wilson and became fascinated. Wilson has been with me ever since, in one way or another — starting with the role he played in my applying to Princeton. When I was at Palisades High School, I had four heroes, whose photographs were on my wall: F. Scott Fitzgerald [’17], Adlai Stevenson [’22], Woodrow Wilson, and Don Quixote. Three of the four, of course, went to Princeton, and that was inducement enough for me to apply. And Quixote, I’m sure, would have gone as well, had he been admitted.
So much has been written about Wilson. How did you go about writing a new biography?
One note card at a time. It takes a certain amount of egotism for a biographer to think he has something new to add to the record, and I believe I do. It is now exactly a century since Wilson was inaugurated as president, and though much has been written about him, I had not seen a book that I felt humanized him. I also hoped to contemporize him, to show how Wilson figures into our culture today.
I wanted to write a biography from the inside out. Where most biographies of public figures emphasize the great historic events and then comment on the subject’s personal life, I wanted to explore Wilson’s life and personality and bring all that to the history as it unfolded before him.
What were the most surprising things you learned?
What surprised me most was the depth of his feelings. People tend to think of Wilson simply as the dour descendant of Presbyterian ministers — which, to some extent, he was. But he was also humorous, emotional, and extremely romantic, even somewhat superstitious. He was a man of intense passion. I felt other biographers had alluded to these aspects of his personality without using them to illuminate his character or his life path.
You reviewed notes from Wilson’s doctor.
I learned that Wilson had a minor operation for polyps when he was in the White House. ... This is fascinating because not long afterward, in 1919, Wilson had his major stroke, but Edith Wilson, his second wife, and Dr. Grayson had already done the dress rehearsal. They knew how to keep his medical condition a secret from the entire nation — because they had already done it.
How have recent presidents understood Wilson’s legacy?
Domestically, all our progressive presidents, from FDR to Obama, have followed the trail Wilson blazed — though few have engaged in the practice of sustained dialogue as assiduously as Wilson, addressing Congress regularly and working out of the President’s Room in the Capitol as he did. And though his thoughts have sometimes been distorted, our foreign policy, to this day, springs from Wilson’s speech to Congress on April 2, 1917, when he called for a declaration of war and said, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” He implanted that moral imperative into American foreign policy, and many of his successors have sought to implement it, with varying degrees of success.
Richard Nixon, for example, asked for Wilson’s desk when he became president — though his actions at that desk were not what I would consider Wilsonian. The same could be said of George W. Bush, whom some have carelessly called Wilsonian because of his intention to bring democracy to the Middle East. But one must remember that Wilson had explored every possible option before leading America into the World War.
Glenn Beck has called Wilson “the most evil guy we’ve ever had in office.” Why is Wilson so hated by many modern conservatives?
Wilson entered the White House with an ambitious Progressive agenda and advanced legislation in ways no president ever had. His proactivity shocked Congress and the nation, because many considered him little more than a college professor — all brains and no brawn. They did not understand how strong a politician he was.
Many right-wing critics further object to his imposing the federal government into our lives. Wilson thought there were basic inequities in this country, primarily economic, that needed to be addressed. During his first few years in office, he muscled everything from the Federal Reserve Act to the Clayton Antitrust Act and the Adamson Act with its eight-hour workday through the Congress. The federal government expanded into areas of the economy in which it had not intruded before, a presence Wilson thought the country needed in order to prosper. With so much wealth in the hands of so few that the average American did not have a fair chance to compete, he wanted to level the playing field.
That theme of wanting to equalize opportunities recurs in Wilson’s life — whether it protected the student who wasn’t accepted into Princeton’s most exclusive eating clubs or the Western farmer trying to function in a nation controlled by Eastern industrialists or small nations trying to survive in an emerging world economy. Sadly, his thinking seldom included African-Americans.
What would Wilson think of Princeton’s residential colleges?
I think he would give locomotives to presidents Tilghman, Shapiro, and Bowen. He would walk past Whitman College and say, “This is what I was talking about!”
And this year also marks the 100th anniversary of Princeton’s Graduate College. One of the things I came to appreciate in writing my book was that Wilson’s fight with Andrew Fleming West  was not so much about the location of the Graduate College as it was about the place graduate education held in American life. He wanted to keep it from becoming an exclusive enclave for privileged sons. Wilson wanted the Graduate College to provide a place for serious scholars to rise intellectually and, in turn, serve the state of the American mind.
Is Wilson a tragic figure?
Yes, as idealists invariably are. Don’t forget those other guys whose pictures were on my wall. Among the great lessons to be learned from Wilson’s life are that a single person can swing the pendulum only so far, and one can’t change the world on his own. The system — whether it’s a small college or a new world order — can withstand only so much adjustment at a time. In the end, Wilson’s unyielding adherence to principles was his noblest strength ... but also his fatal flaw.
Interview conducted and condensed by Mark F. Bernstein ’83