- Audible Audio Edition
- Listening Length: 32 hours and 29 minutes
- Program Type: Audiobook
- Version: Unabridged
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio
- Audible.com Release Date: September 10, 2013
- Whispersync for Voice: Ready
- Language: English
- ASIN: B00DEK2HCM
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank:
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Wilson Audiobook – Unabridged
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Top customer reviews
In biographies of famous people there is a balance that needs to be struck between hero worship and a hatchet piece that comes across as though he/she did nothing right. I think when looking at historical figures, we have to view them in context of their time, rather than putting our own modern values on them. I thought Berg did a pretty good job of striking the right balance on this front, but individual mileage may vary.
A superb look at Woodrow Wilson.
"Wilson" is a highly readable and comprehensive biography of the 28th president. Demonstrating obvious fondness for his subject, Berg nonetheless remains balanced in highlighting Wilson's many strengths, but also in exposing his flaws. While the events of Wilson's life and presidency are sufficiently addressed, Berg is perhaps at his best in capturing the essence of the man himself. Wilson the moralistic and sanctimonious; the romantic and the idealistic; the racist and the tragic: Berg presents in riveting prose the many facets of Wilson. He delves into an extraordinary level of detail that remains relevant throughout.
Born in Virginia before the Civil War, Wilson's childhood was marred by war and the horrors it left in its wake. This experience in no small part informed his subsequent attitude towards involvement in war as well as his idealistic view of what the world order should be going forward. He was heavily influenced by his father, a Scotch-Irish Presbyterian minister, developing strong moral character that would propel him through a maelstrom of personal and political crises. From this cloth was cut a man who began his political career as a freshly minted Governor by literally showing the New Jersey Democratic Party State Committee Chair the door when accused by him of buying votes to obtain one of his first significant legislative victories.
But Wilson's moral rectitude was also a shortcoming: his failing was manifested in a level of arrogance and stubbornness that contributed greatly to the dismal final two years of his presidency. His was a mission that could not be questioned by anyone, either at the negotiating table in Paris or on his home turf. Had Wilson been willing to compromise, the peace treaty he brought home from France, and his brainchild, the League of Nations, might have met in some form with Senate approval. But in politics, an ideal with insufficient votes is no deal at all. And therein lay the downfall of Wilson's leadership. When it came to making the peace, he was incapable of grasping political realities, either at home or abroad.
It is undeniable that the ailments he endured during the Peace Conference and the debilitating stroke that he suffered upon his return to the U.S. contributed to the chaos and secrecy that plagued his administration in the final 18 months. Berg effectively portrays Wilson as a Christ-like figure, assigning Biblical themes to the titles of each chapter of his book. In the chapter "Pietà", Berg poignantly describes the aftermath of Wilson's major stroke: "Edith pulled a blanket from the Lincoln Bed and draped it over her husband’s inanimate body. At last he stirred and requested a drink of water. In fetching it, Edith also grabbed a pillow, returning to elevate his head as she cradled him." Her husband had been led to the slaughter by his political opponents, humiliated before the world as he sought to save it, and now lay inert and her arms.
Under a steely veneer, Wilson remained a hopeless romantic, both in love and in his vision for the world. While studying for his doctorate degree, he wrote hundreds of passionate love letters to his fiancée, Ellen Louise Axson. Years later, as the Lusitania and other seaborne vessels were sinking and the United States was drawing closer to war, Wilson again took up his pen to court Edith Bolling Galt with another barrage of love letters. It is difficult to imagine how he was able to do little else during these periods of courtship. But as a man of enormous energy and resolution, he somehow managed.
As Wilson became increasingly paranoid and distrustful of even his closest advisers, his intimate relationships with both of his wives remained essential to his well-being, to his ability to fight illness and depression. In the final frightening and rudderless months of Wilson's presidency, Edith, who had become a virtual proxy president, would both literally and figuratively prop him up.
Wilson came into office within a gargantuan social agenda, much of which he accomplished in his first term. To a certain degree his domestic policies picked up where Teddy Roosevelt's progressivism left off. In a little more than a year, he pulled the rug out from under monopolists by slashing protective tariffs, adopted the first federal income tax, created the Federal Reserve system, stepped up antitrust enforcement with the new Federal Trade Commission, scaled back child labor, introduced the eight-hour day, and ushered in workers’ compensation. He was tireless and relentless in his activism.
Yet despite the breadth of this social agenda, he did virtually nothing to advance the worsening predicament of blacks in American society. At perhaps his most disingenuous, Wilson dismissed the topic of race as being a social rather than a political one requiring his attention. On his watch, Jim Crow laws continued to cast a shameful shadow over American society, and the Klu Klux Klan was back in full swing.
Wilson rationalized that the issue of race was not one ripe to be tackled. But his dismissiveness of one of the most significant domestic issues of his day was at odds with his activist agenda. He set about enabling ambitious and courageous domestic reforms and was ultimately willing to risk all politically to push through his international agenda. Yet he staffed his own Cabinet with bigoted men and handed his first U.S. Supreme Court appointment to an avowed racist. Wilson somewhat redeemed himself on the latter decision by subsequently appointing Louis Brandeis to the Supreme Court, the first Jew to sit on the high court.
On women's suffrage, Wilson fared much better. Although he initially brushed off suffrage as a states' rights issue, he eventually saw the handwriting on the wall and embraced passage of the 19th amendment. Even before its passage, the majority of states which had already adopted women's suffrage went for Wilson in 1916 primarily on the strength of the women's vote. In return, women looked to Wilson and his promise to keep their sons out of war. Ironically that was not to be, and shortly after his slim second-term victory the United States declared war on Germany.
Upon entering World War I, Wilson thrust the nation into a quasi-state of socialism, with most of the country and Congress initially waving the flag behind him. Whether this was the only or best mechanism by which the country could quickly be thrown into gear for war is much debated to this day. But over time, support for Wilson's socialist machine eroded badly, particularly after the economic engine of war came to a grinding halt.
Once in office, Wilson the political theorist and Wilson the president parted ways. As a professor at Princeton, Wilson had severely criticized President John Adams for his role in passage of the Sedition Act of 1798. Of that legislation Wilson wrote that it had “ . . .cut perilously near the root of freedom of speech and of the press. There was no telling where such exercises of power would stop. Their only limitations and safeguards lay in the temper and good sense of the President and the Attorney General.” Yet as President, neither Wilson nor his Attorney General demonstrated much restraint.
Wilson promoted the Espionage Act of 1917, condoning some of the same repressive and illiberal actions against critics of the government as had Adams. In 1918 alone, some 1,500 citizens were arrested for speaking out against the war, including labor leader and four-time presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs. So strongly did Wilson feel about Deb's seditious conduct that for the duration of his presidency he could never bring himself to commute Debs' harsh ten-year sentence. Wilson's successor, Warren G. Harding, did so in 1921.
Wilson's path to war was slow and reflective, much to the consternation of the hawkish Teddy Roosevelt and most of the Republican Party. Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge remained a constant thorn in Wilson's side, severely criticizing both Wilson's timing of getting into the war and his plan for peace. To his credit, Wilson would not pull the trigger until he thought the United States was at the tipping point, his ultimate decision to declare war on Germany weighing heavily upon him. Joseph Tumulty, Wilson's Chief of Staff, later recalled the President putting his head down on his desk after his war announcement to Congress and "sobbing like a child."
Once Wilson's decision was made, he set the United States on a new foreign policy trajectory in declaring that, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” These words would not soon be forgotten. Some 85 years later, another president, George W. Bush, resurrected this Wilsonian principle in formulating his own rationale for war in the Middle East. History continues to look with a critical eye at Wilson's pronouncement. A negative assessment on Bush's adoption of this principle has come more quickly and decisively.
Berg provides a colorful account of the dysfunctional Paris Peace Conference and the tangle of personalities and issues that rendered the process virtually inert. To his wife's social secretary, Wilson described the first session of the Peace Conference as "an old ladies' tea party." What Wilson had failed to comprehend was that behind the perpetual foot dragging and sclerotic protocol, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau and England's David Lloyd George colluded to thwart Wilson at every turn.
Where Wilson had it right was in insisting that humiliating Germany and crushing her economically would only be the path to another war. Where he had it wrong was in thinking that his ideals would ever be embraced as a workable alternative.
Wilson has been ranked by some as one of the greatest American presidents, and by others, as one of the worst. At his apogee, he was the triumphant world leader sailing across the Atlantic Ocean to negotiate the end to the "war to end all wars." At his nadir, he was a lame duck president, broken both physically and emotionally, who had failed in his most significant political endeavor. Even after he left office, he remained quixotic, continuing to believe he might make another run at the presidency and at fixing the world's problems. He was brilliant; he was hard-working; he was controversial; and he certainly gave the presidency the old college try. Berg's masterful biography captures all this and more.