John Milton Cooper '61 (Photo: John Cooper k'61)

Historians of early 20th century America are often drawn to one of the era’s two towering figures: Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson 1879. For John Milton Cooper ’61, an emeritus professor at the University of Wisconsin, all signs seemed to point to the latter.

Cooper attended a Washington, D.C., high school named for Wilson. He then came to Princeton, where Wilson had studied, taught, and served as president. He even earned a graduate fellowship that bore Wilson’s name. But connecting those dots would be a “historiographical fallacy,” Cooper joked in a recent talk at Princeton. He chose Wilson primarily because of his scholarly interests in World War I and progressivism.

Regardless of the initial motivation, Cooper has made remarkable contributions to Wilson scholarship, including Woodrow Wilson: A Biography, which earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination in 2010. With the 100th anniversary of Wilson’s presidential inauguration approaching, Cooper came to the Woodrow Wilson School Feb. 21 for a public conversation with professor and presidential historian Julian Zelizer.

In two terms as president, Wilson helped to shape important events — perhaps most notably by mobilizing the United States for its entry into World War I. But Cooper said that Wilson also “stands extremely tall” in terms of the skills that he brought to the office.

His first term, for example, brought the passage of an impressive legislative agenda, made possible by Wilson’s knack for influencing Congress.

“Woodrow Wilson went to speak before Congress more than any other president before him or any other president after him,” Cooper said. “This was his way to reach a national audience. … What Wilson was doing is what presidents do now when they go on TV. [Going to Congress] was a way of making sure that he got maximum coverage.”

Wilson was a highly regarded political scientist before he became Princeton’s president, and in Cooper’s view, he succeed “because of, not in spite of” his academic background. But the savvy political operator had blind spots, notably in matters race and civil liberties — two areas that detract from Wilson’s legacy, Cooper said.

In addition to the conversation with Zelizer, Cooper fielded questions from audience members, including one about the role of Wilson’s second wife, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, after the president’s stroke in 1919.

The first lady claimed that she did not make any of the president’s decisions, but she did control access to Wilson, in hopes of reducing stress and protecting his fragile health. The person who controls access, Cooper argued, “to some extent is president,” adding that Mrs. Wilson managed admirably, given the circumstances.

“I think everybody should have a lot of sympathy for her because she was in an extremely frightening situation,” he said. “Her husband had suffered this major stroke. He was president of the United States, the peace of the world apparently is hanging in the balance. … I think she did the best she could, and I think she deserves praise, not condemnation.”

Video: Watch the full John Milton Cooper ’61 event on the Wilson School’s WebMedia site.