December 27, 2013

"Wilson" review: Wrong from the start — too much hagiography, not enough analysis

WilsonWilson by A. Scott Berg

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

At the end of this book, Scott Berg describes what propelled him to undertake this biography. He says he had read a number of biographies, and none of them captured Wilson's essence.

Well, now we can add one more to that list.

Berg has written, but not quite crafted, a tome that is clearly hagiographic, and in being such, also clearly lacks analysis and depth, despite some 750 pages of body text.

I found myself by the end of the first chapter questioning Berg's claims about the depth of Wilson's support for women's suffrage, and simply shaking my head at Berg's conceit that Wilson alleged wrestled all his life with issues of race.

And, it is on that subject, throughout the book, that Berg's hagiography is most apparent. While mentioning that Wilson grew up in the South, and that his father was briefly a Confederate Army chaplain, he nowhere explicitly talks about his father owning slaves.

He does mention that his Presidential cabinet was almost all Southerners, most of them unreconstructed, but doesn't mention how unreconstructed they were.

He tries to downplay Wilson's official segregation of Washington. And fails.

On women's suffrage, the proper analytical dots aren't connected. He doesn't ask if Wilson's refusal to support woman's suffrage on the federal level isn't due to his worry that this would make his failure to support black suffrage on the federal level — black suffrage already in the 15th Amendment — all the more hypocritical.

There's plenty of evidence Wilson was a racist by enlightened standards of his day, let alone ours. No, Scott Berg, not nearly every white person made "darkie" jokes, thought blacks were lazy, etc. And never did Wilson seriously "wrestle" with issues of race.

But, the lack of analysis doesn't stop there.

Wilson believed, overtly, he had been directly called to his office by god in a way no other president afterward did until George W. Bush. Berg, despite giving each chapter of his book a Biblical title like "Sinai" or "Gethsamane" (titles eyebrow-raising in and of themselves) never asks how this affected Wilson's domestic record. And, even when connecting it to World War I and Versailles and the League of Nations, he still doesn't go into a lot of detail.

Given that Wilson's religious background was not like Bush's, but was a traditional Calvinism theoretically including double predestination, unlike Bush's psycho-therapeutic evangelical Protestantism, I certainly would, and do, wonder: After the Senate defeat of the League, rather than pour out ire at Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, etc., did Wilson just once, for a moment, wonder if this meant he had been negatively predestined on this issue? Berg never asks.

More to the point, and also related to Wilson's belief he had been messianically chosen — why was Wilson such a "hater"? And, it's more than in modern social media buzzspeak. Once he started hating somebody, he kept on hating them. He cut his successor as Princeton president and Col. House, among others, permanently out of his loop after he started hating them. Berg doesn't take a look at the "why" of this at all.

And, the hagiography, combined with errors of omission, also doesn't stop there.

Berg almost totally glosses over Wilson's massive amount of interventionism in Central America. Oh, sure, several pages are devoted to Mexico. But the Caribbean? A couple of mentions, no more than a paragraph's worth.

He nowhere wrestles with the reality of Wilson's quote: "I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men."

His discussion of the formation of the Federal Reserve is superficial. As part of that superficiality, Berg doesn't ask whether the Federal Reserve, as a solution to U.S. banking needs, really was that progressive. (The 2008 meltdown and the actions, or non-actions, of the New York Federal Reserve tell us "no.")

But, the hagiography is just warming up!

On page 328, he claims that Wilson's 1913 record of accomplishments, including the Federal Reserve, Clayton Anti-Trust Act, creation of the Federal Trade Commission, a new tariff and other things, was the greatest legislative outburst since the foundation of the Republic!


I'll take Lincoln's 1862 over that — Homestead Act, Morrill Act for land-grant colleges, transcontinental railroad legislation, first and second Confiscation Acts that were slowly setting the country on the road to emancipation in the Civil War, and the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation itself.

Wouldn't you?

But, we haven't gotten to the outright errors of fact yet! There's several related to World War 1.

First, no, Japan was NOT "forced" to declare war because of its treaty with Great Britain. Rather, said treaty gave Japan the legal cover to declare war and not be an aggressor. How Berg got this wrong is totally beyond me, and frankly, I don't even want to try to figure it out.

Second, on page 395, the torpedoing of the Sussex, as a ship traveling between two belligerents and not a belligerent and a neutral, had nothing to do with the United States needing to consider entering the war.

Which now leads us from errors of fact back to hagiography.

Berg talks about his hero worship of Walter Bagehot (along with William Gladstone), and his wanting to graft British parliamentary government onto the American tripartate system.

He never asks how this might have made Wilson un-neutral not just in heart, but how his heart expressed itself, from the start of the war. (Author Walter Karp details how it did.) For example, why did Wilson never protest Britain's blockade by extension, just as illegal under international law as the German submarine zones?

The Bagehot issue leads us back to analysis of Wilson as public policy intellectual. Why, if these ideas are so brilliant, have none of them been adopted? Even LBJ, for all his effort to be like a prime minister in some ways, didn't go that far.

Was it in part, in the early years after Wilson's presidency, the fact that he was seen as such a hater? Had that alone made these ideas that toxic?

We're not done with the errors of fact yet, though!

Why, if Wilson wanted "no part" of invading Russia, was the U.S. in Russia as long as all the other Western countries? Actually, Wilson overrode the Department of War to approve the Archangel campaign. That said, Berg also gets issues of Polish involvement, Versailles and post-Versailles (it was a Polish nationalist fight) and Japanese involvement wrong, too. Add to that something not strictly a factual error, like calling the Czech Legion "freedom fighters," and you can see how bad this section of the book is.

As for his coverage of Versailles? Margaret MacMillan's "Paris 1919" is far better.

The only interesting thing to the good is Berg covering Wilson's health and his apparently suffering several mini-strokes during Versailles and after, up to his major stroke in Pueblo. But, given that Wikipedia notes Wilson's first stroke may have been in 1895, I'm sure any good bio of Wilson does similar.

I had planned on two-starring this book when I started writing my review from my notes. But I can't. It's that bad, and needs a serious one-star review.

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