Was our twenty-eighth president nuts? Reviewing A. Scott Berg’s new biography of Woodrow Wilson in the just-released Winter edition of the Claremont Review of Books (subscribe here for $19.95), Weekly Standard senior editor Christopher Caldwell finds little evidence to doubt it. That Wilson’s sanctimonious pabulum (“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for!”— shoot, strike that—”Sometimes people call me an idealist…well, that is the way I know I am an American!”) has its own contemporary echo makes one wonder whether Barack Obama’s deepest inspiration might not be Wilson rather than Alinsky.
In “Schoolmaster to the World,” Caldwell is critical of Berg’s overall approach to Wilson: “Berg has set out to write an intimate biography—a story of Wilson the person…An intimate biography can be a useful window on a personalized presidency. The problem is, no one ever remained intimate with Wilson unless he showed he worshiped the ground Wilson walked on. Wilson wielded against all those who disagreed with him a vindictive, grudge-holding, lifelong hatred.” Still, Caldwell finds enough color in the book to paint an extraordinarily unflattering portrait of the president in spite of Berg’s apparent intentions.
Of particular note is Wilson’s heavy-handed idealism, his bullish self-confidence and distrust of inherited institutions: “To a reformer of sufficient self-confidence, the very fact that an institution has served society well can be a reason to dismantle it.” Berg, writes Caldwell, is especially good at detailing the recurring ways this impulse manifested itself in Wilson: “Any time he became part of a group or organization—from the Eumeneans at Davidson College to the Princeton baseball club to the Johns Hopkins Literary Society—he would dig up and then rewrite its constitution, usually seizing on some neglected provision which, in an emergency, could be wielded to make the system more efficient, hierarchical, and subject to his own wishes.”
What lonely impulse drove Wilson? It is unclear whether the problem with past constitutions for Wilson was their content or their authorship—whether Wilson didn’t simply believe past problems the result of his not yet having had the chance to solve them. “His main thought about his own country’s Constitution was that it was inadequate to the challenges of the day,” writes Caldwell, which seems fair enough—but, given his track record with constitutions, it is difficult to imagine Wilson coming to any other conclusion and not deciding, lucky us, that he was exactly the man for the job: the very one we’d been waiting for, if only we’d known it.
What a strange world in which such an unbendingly self-righteousness prig could twice be elected president. Or rather, not so strange: on reflection, it seems the world we inhabit today. In that sense Wilson was less a builder than a harbinger.