Woodrow Wilson by Louis Auchincloss

wilson.jpg Since starting my new job I have been trying to digest a lot of new information. As a result I haven’t been able to concentrate on long and deep works of non-fiction. So I turned again to the Penguin Lives Series. This time it was Woodrow Wilson by Louis Auchincloss.

Like the Lincoln volume, this is a complex subject covered in a brief biography written by a novelist. In this case the book is a mere 125 pages long, so in reality it is an extended essay. Certainly it is far from an exhaustive biography or even a survey of the literature. Instead it is just a glimpse into some of the issues and ideas that were involved in the life of Woodrow Wilson. As such I found it an interesting and worthwhile read.

Auchincloss focuses on Wilson’s personality and its impact on his decision making and relationships. He begins by describing the 1919 stroke that left Wilson bedridden and largely incompetent. He goes on to describe the “strange hiatus in American Governance” that followed. In essence, Wilson’s wife Edith and his Doctor, Admiral Cary Grayson, concealed Wilson’s true condition and watched as the Cabinet tried to carry on with out an active President. Auchincloss uses this as an introduction to the concept of “two Woodrow Wilsons.” Auchincloss believes that Wilson’s strokes had a negative impact on his temperament and personality, making him at times “querulous, petulant, and unable to take care of business” with any efficiency.

This idea of “the two Wilson’s” runs throughout the book. On the one hand you have the highly intelligent, independent, and often eloquent Wilson and on the other you have the insecure, proud, and stubborn Wilson. It was the eloquent and independent Wilson that moved from the Academia of Princeton to the Governorship of New Jersey and eventually to the White House. It was the stubborn and querulous Wilson who cut off relationships and refused to compromise even when it meant losing everything.

All of this leads to the climatic point in Wilson’s life, the peace conference after World War I. Interestingly, Wilson waged the first world war quite successfully despite having spent the preceding months fighting vigorously for peace and neutrality (he was re-elected on a campaign of “he kept us out of war”). When it came to making a lasting peace, however, Wilson’s darker side seemed to come to the front. He failed to include important Republican’s in the peace process despite the fact that they were in control of the Senate, which would have to approve any treaty it produced. He foolishly appointed his closest confidant and advisor, Colonel House, to a formal position and thus losing his most important counsel at the moment he most needed him. He insisted on attending the peace talks personally thereby embroiling himself directly in the petty squabbling of the bitter Allies. He insisted on the creation of a “League of Nations” to the detriment of a host of issues that would spoil the peace. Auchincloss quotes a character in a Howard Koch play: “You’ve got the world saddled with a treaty you despise for the sake of a covenant nobody else really wants.”

When Wilson returns from Paris still recovering from another minor stroke, he locks horns with the formidable Henry Cabot Lodge. Instead of seeking out a way to compromise and work with Lodge he asserted that “Anyone who opposes me in that, I’ll crush!” Auchincloss notes that since Wilson’s party was in the minority this statement borders on the megalomaniacal. In fact Lodge uses Wilson’s pride and personal hostility against him, building up votes against the treaty as written. Wilson tried to sidestep the legal obligation Article 13 would impose on the United States and instead focus on the moral obligation for peace. Wilson’s slippery rhetoric did not help his cause and in the end the Senate sought to add a “reservation” to the treaty clarifying that the new league could not force the US to go to war without a declaration of Congress. Wilson rejected this reservation and determined to take his case to the people.

This brings us back full circle to the stroke that felled Wilson and left his wife and doctor largely in charge of the executive branch. Their deceit and cowardess didn’t serve the country well. After his stroke Wilson was again the petulant, paranoid, and ineffective executive. Soon his party, his advisors, and in the end even his wife called on him to signal that he would accept the treaty with the reservation. On November 19, 1919 the Senate voted 55 to 39 not to ratify the treaty as written. Wilson stubbornly insisted that the Treaty with the reservation not pass and so it failed as well. Typical of Wilson, it was all or nothing.

In fact, Auchincloss’ commentary after this event illuminates Wilson’s failings quite well:

Wilson has received plaudits from many historians for his lofty concept of world peace. But it has always seemed to me that it is a simple matter for a man to dream of peace and leagues and international understandings. The whole trick in such matters is not to dream them but to implement those dreams. Wilson wouldn’t accept second best, but wasn’t second best a good deal better than nothing?

Obviously Woodrow Wilson and the events and ideas of his time are complex and multifaceted. Clearly Auchincloss couldn’t capture anything but a sliver in 125 pages. But brevity and clarity are worth a lot these days. Auchincloss writes tightly and with grace. He gives you a feeling for some of the more important characters and events in this important time. This little book gives you a fascinating glimpse into the mind and life of one of our more interesting Presidents. I would recommend it to anyone.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).