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Book review: Berg's 'Wilson' illuminates remarkable, flawed president

"Wilson" is a biography of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson by A. Scott Berg.
"Wilson" is a biography of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson by A. Scott Berg.

"WILSON," by A. Scott Berg, Putnam, $40, 832 pages (nf)

A century later, Woodrow Wilson's presidential administration continues to cast a long shadow. Income tax, the Federal Reserve, the current contours of the Middle East and the evolution of modern American foreign policy can all be traced back to his time in office.

In his new biography of the 28th president of the United States, “Wilson,” A. Scott Berg presents a portrait of a remarkable, though deeply flawed, individual. Berg examines Wilson's early life and academic career with insight (Wilson was the only president to hold a doctorate), and paints Wilson as a devoted family man filled with ambition. Berg also notes early in the work that as late as the fall of 1910, hardly anyone in the country knew who Wilson was. Only two years later, he was elected president.

Berg explores Wilson's controversial policies, such as segregating the government's bureaucracy in spite of pledges to better the lot of African-Americans, leading to frequent clashes with the NAACP and other black leaders. What is fascinating to modern readers are many of the speeches Wilson gave that attacked privilege and called for government to redistribute the nation's wealth to its lower classes. While campaigning for president in 1912 Wilson said, “The most serious thing facing us today is the concentration of money (and) power in the hands of a few.” Such words sound almost identical to the rhetoric coming from our current commander-in-chief.

Sections dealing with the American entry into World War I, arguably the worst foreign policy mistake in our nation's history, and Wilson's performance at the 1919 Paris peace conference make for fascinating reading. Berg also expertly presents the fight to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and Wilson's subsequent stroke, which left him virtually incapacitated in office for more than a year.

The same penetrating illumination, meaningful insight and readable prose that Berg brought to his biography of Charles Lindbergh is on display throughout “Wilson,” and readers can walk away with a profound and unique perspective on the man, offered by one of our most gifted biographers.

“Wilson,” which is scheduled to be released on Sept. 10, contains no offensive material.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at SLCC. He has also appeared on many local stages including Hale Center Theater and Off Broadway Theater. Email: