As the world drifted into war in August 1914, the first lady lay dying in the White House. “At five o’clock, her breathing stopped. With tears streaming down his cheeks, her husband asked, ‘Is it over?’ [Dr.] Grayson nodded. Wilson got up and went to an open window. ‘Oh, my God,’ he cried out, ‘what am I to do?’”
Forget the icy, heartless Woodrow Wilson 1879 of myth — John Milton Cooper ’61 gives us a vivid portrait of a man he calls in his biography “one of the deepest and most daring souls ever to inhabit the White House.” Wilson has attracted fine biographers in the past — two won the Pulitzer Prize for their efforts — but far fewer than his feisty opponent, Teddy Roosevelt. Cooper shrewdly contrasts these two titans, turning the tables on conventional wisdom: Roosevelt was really the moralist, Wilson the pragmatist. And Wilson wasn’t frigid, as so often portrayed. “I definitely wanted to humanize him,” says Cooper. “This is a real, honest-to-God person, and a very decent person.”
Woodrow Wilson: A Biography, published by Knopf last fall, took Cooper seven years to produce, but he has spent a professional lifetime understanding Wilson and his age. Now at the end of a distinguished career — Cooper recently retired from teaching history at the University of Wisconsin — this hefty book summarizes all that he has learned and builds on his previous works, Breaking the Heart of the World: Woodrow Wilson and the Fight for the League of Nations and The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt.
Cooper takes special pride in Wilson as a fellow historian and university man. “This is probably one of the deepest thinkers and most reflective men we’ve ever had as president,” he told PAW. “This guy was an academic and a successful president not in spite of this, but because of this.” Wilson’s governing style derived from his academic study of parliamentary practice, going back to his senior paper as an undergraduate (he believed in strong political parties and excelled at party government); also, his “collegial” approach to his Cabinet — treating its members with respect and autonomy — came straight from his experiences in the Faculty Room at Nassau Hall.
To write about Wilson means wading into controversy. Lately he has been vilified as a racist, and although Cooper hits him hard on this point — disinterest in racial causes was his “greatest tragedy” in a career marked by some titanic stumbles — it was not enough to satisfy a New York Times reviewer who otherwise found the book to be “powerful, deeply researched, and highly readable.” The review lashed Cooper for “hagiography” in not outing Wilson as “the most reactionary president [on race] in the 20th century.” Certainly Cooper is not out for blood on this subject; he considers Wilson (although Southern born) as sadly typical of Northern whites of his era in simply wishing racial unrest would go away.
W. Barksdale Maynard ’88 is the author of Woodrow Wilson: Princeton to the Presidency.