A. Scott Berg’s biography, Wilson, violated a hard and fast rule I have about the books that I choose to read; it was too long. But I swallowed hard and channeled my best high school history teacher and got committed to learning about the life of our twenty-eighth president. If I had given in to my arbitrary side I would have missed out on an inspiring lesson.
Woodrow Wilson in Berg’s account is a man profoundly influenced by being the son of a Presbyterian minister and growing up in the South in the aftermath of the civil war. He trained to be a lawyer but his two forays into law were short lived and unenthusiastic. His purpose in life was to lead and he did that through his written and spoken word. The platforms he used to achieve his mission were higher education, political thought and government.
Berg’s book comes a century after Wilson moved into the White House and led a country that was trying to deal with income inequality, war and women’s right to vote. The ghosts of his times may be haunting the Capitol today. Starting with Wilson himself, advising President Obama on his use of oratory and the need to take issues to the people to sway public opinion, or maybe Henry Cabot Lodge could be whispering in John Boehner’s ear on how to wage a successful campaign against the Affordable Care Act as Lodge did against the League of Nations.
The need to organize, lead and write rules followed Tommy Wilson throughout his life from the “Light Foot Base Ball Club” of his youth to the League of Nations; Wilson was always the constitution writer. At a very early age he realized he was a leader and that his “delight and interest was in the meetings” and “the sense of belonging to an organization and doing something with the organization, it didn’t matter what.”
The high level of esteem in which Americans of his day held Wilson after his presidency is difficult to fathom. On November 11, 1921 the Warren G. Harding administration officiated over the interment of the unidentified remains of a previously buried World War I soldier. The body had been transported from France to Arlington Cemetery to be placed below a white marble sarcophagus at Arlington and was to be forever known as The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Harding invited Wilson and his wife to participate in the ceremonial procession since the official legislative effort establishing the concept had been one of the last acts of Congress during Wilson’s tenure. Due to a presidential oversight the Wilsons missed riding among the dignitaries and their carriage processed behind a group of marching veterans, when the crowd realized that it was Mr. and Mrs. Wilson it responded with dignified recognition.
The Wilsons unceremoniously exited the procession as planned and retired to their “S” street home. The former president’s health precluded his participation at the gravesite ceremony. The aftermath resulted in a crowd of 20,000 people assembling in front of their home and required multiple appearances by Woodrow and Edith Wilson. It culminated in one man declaring “Long live the best man in the world!” as well as the crowd breaking out into “My Country, Tis of Thee” and nearly everyone including the Wilsons openly weeping.
Although much will be written about how the status of Wilson’s health was concealed from the public and that Edith Wilson controlled access to her husband as well as the presidential agenda, I believe the substance of Wilson as told by Berg is all about leadership, independence of thought and the willingness of the executive to feel the consequences of presidential policy and openly express their consequences.