Non-fiction: "Woodrow Wilson: A Biography," by John Milton Cooper Jr.
Franklin Roosevelt probably engendered more words about his career than any other 20th-century president, but I wager Woodrow Wilson isn't far behind.
Why, then, another biography of the 28th president whose legacy seems as quaint as the top hat these days?
Perhaps John Milton Cooper, a historian of long-standing who specializes in the Wilson era, wrote this comprehensive and conventional biography as a capstone to his long career.
His earlier book, "Breaking the Heart of the World: Wilson and the Fight for the League of Nations," defined the Democrat's role in history through his efforts to create an international body to maintain the peace after World War I.
Wilson's strenuous and unsuccessful struggle to bring the United States into the League of Nations led to a debilitating stroke that ruined his second term and to the country's long period of isolationism.
Wilson's disability, that strange episode in the American presidency when the nation went nearly 11/2 years without a competent chief executive, is one of many unusual aspects to Wilson's White House years. Cooper's major reason for writing this biography, then, is to present those aspects in a largely positive spirit.
After a slow start to his first term, Wilson moved decisively to establish the traditions of the modern activist presidency. Mistakes were made, particularly in dealing with an unstable Mexico, but the intellectual president supported by his austere Presbyterian faith, learned and corrected them, Cooper contends.
American history was Wilson's subject as a college professor. As president, he put his knowledge to work by pushing the powers of his office to the limit by playing skilled politics in Congress and showing confident leadership to the nation.
Wilson's decision to bring the United States into World War I was unprecedented in our nation's history and changed the course of the 20th century. He called for war because he believed it was "the right" thing for a president to do, Cooper writes. Wilson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts after the war.
Wilson wrote his own speeches. Cooper believes they rank among the finest oratory in the history of the presidency because they educated as well as inspired their listeners. He describes Wilson's early domestic accomplishments from the Federal Reserve to the Federal Trade Commission as the foundations of America's later economic strength. Other areas, including civil rights for African-Americans and voting rights for women, were long neglected, and the author duly chastises Wilson for his faults.
The 28th president was an unusual character as well -- brooding, pedantic, vain on the one hand, amorous, joking and solicitous on the other, but in all areas, he sought action and results, Cooper writes. Despite that perplexing nature, Wilson seldom appears as a fully realized person in this biography.
The name Woodrow Wilson remains an integral part of history, from the foundation in his name at his alma mater, Princeton, to statues in France and Great Britain. He's the least understood American president, but certainly one of the greatest in John Milton Cooper's book.
First Published November 22, 2009 12:00 am