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Woodrow Wilson: A Biography Hardcover – Deckle Edge, November 3, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
If we must have another presidential biography, best to have one of a figure who hasn't had his life written about at length for two decades. While the Wilson we find here differs little from the man we've known before, Cooper's new book is an authoritative, up-to-date study of the great president. Cooper (Breaking the Heart of the World), a noted Wilson expert at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, offers balanced and judicious assessments of the life and career of one of the nation's most controversial leaders. From his youth in Virginia, through his years at Princeton, then as New Jersey governor and president, Wilson faced thickets of challenges, not all of which he managed effectively. At the end, sick and weakened, characteristically stubborn and moralistic, he notoriously failed to gain American membership in the League of Nations. Yet Cooper, while sympathetic to his subject—a visionary and Progressive reformer in domestic politics—fairly records Wilson's Southern racism along with his keen intellect and political acuity. Wilson would come to be, Cooper concludes, one of the best remembered and argued over of all presidents. While not stemming any disputes, this book will please and inform all readers. 16 pages of photos. (Nov. 2)
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“Cooper’s much-anticipated biography finally gives Wilson his due. The preeminent living historian of Wilson and his era, Cooper has studied the man an his times for decades…he now presents us with his magnum opus. The book is deeply, indeed exhaustively researched, and beautifully, often movingly narrated. It is far and away the best biography of the 28th president we have, and as such it is unlikely to be surpassed.”
“Cooper’s monumental new biography seeks to revive Wilson for the 21st century—not simply to narrate a presidential life, but to explain why he deserves our national esteem….An admiring and engaging work of presidential revisionism…. A powerful, deeply researched and highly readable case for keeping Wilson in the top ranks of American presidents.”
—New York Times Book Review
“Wilson comes alive in Cooper’s insightful and important biography…. It’s easy to see why Wilson captures many imaginations. We still want to believe what Wilson believed: that there is a common right, that we can find it, and that it matters most of all.”
“Cooper clearly admires his subject but is not blind to his faults. His is a nuanced portrait of the 28th president…. It also offers lessons for another intellectual professor-turned-president, who combines principle with pragmatism. He, Wilson, and Teddy Roosevelt are the only presidents to receive a Nobel Peace Prize while still in office.”
—Cleveland Plain Dealer
“A noted Woodrow Wilson expert comprehensively examines the life and career of America’s 28th president…. Cooper exhibits complete command of his materials, a sure knowledge of the man and a nuanced understanding of a presidency almost Shakespearean in its dimensions.”
—Kirkus (Starred review)
“[O]ur leading Wilson authority…offers a comprehensive, felicitously written biography aimed at scholars but accessible to general readers, too…. He admires Wilson for his faith, learning, eloquence, and executive skill while conceding that he had to learn foreign policy on the job—yet established America as an international player.”
—Library Journal (Starred review)
“In this spellbinding new biography, sure to take its place as the definitive one volume life, John Milton Cooper rescues Woodrow Wilson from historical caricature. He gives us the Progressive champion whose New Freedom transformed the role of government and offered later presidents—FDR and LBJ come to mind—a textbook example of presidential persuasion and legislative mastery. Behind Wilsonian idealism is Wilson the idealist—a man of soaring vision and tragic blind spots, furtive charm and unbridled passions, global ambitions and unyielding enmities. Crafted with a scholarship and eloquence worthy of its subject, Cooper’s Wilson is intensely moving, sometimes infuriating, and surprisingly contemporary. Above all, it lives.”
—Richard Norton Smith, author of Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation
“None of our most consequential presidents have been as elusive as Woodrow Wilson. But in this wise and often moving work, John Milton Cooper, Jr. takes his full measure—as scholar and orator, personality and politician, visionary and statesman. It is a triumph of American biography, both deeply learned and gracefully crafted.”
—Michael Kazin, author of A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan
“John Cooper’s Wilson is the triumphant product of a dedicated life’s work. Cooper has earlier written, with insight and authority, The Warrior and the Priest, a comparison of T.R. and Wilson, and Breaking the Heart of the World, a study of the making and rejection of the Treaty of Versailles. In the process of preparing those absorbing works and going on to write this incomparable biography, Cooper has read everything significant that Wilson ever wrote, from love letters to political theory, and also read everything significant that has been written about Wilson. He has now utilized his unequalled learning in his interpretations and evaluations of Wilson’s life, the subject of this sprightly, authoritative, and eminently readable book.”
—John Blum, author of V Was for Victory: Politics and American Culture During World War II
“A landmark work, the best one-volume biography ever written about the 28th president, and political history as its finest. With great deftness, Cooper describes and evaluates Wilson’s personality and intellect, in ways that will surprise many readers. He thereby illuminates the idealism and tragedy, the insight and the blindness, of one of the monumental figures in the nation’s history.”
—Sean Wilentz, author of The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln
“John Milton Cooper has given us a rich and thoughtful portrait of a transformative, controversial and resonant president. Americans who remember Woodrow Wilson as a dour scholar-president will find a vastly more complicated and fascinating man in the pages of Cooper's sweeping new book.” —Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of American Lion
“There is no more accomplished Woodrow Wilson scholar than John Milton Cooper, and this magisterial, judicious, deeply researched book—the culmination of decades of study—shows the author at the zenith of his powers. Cooper’s book demonstrates Wilson’s importance to our own generation, and his powerful judgments will shape the way we view the 28th President for a very long time.”—Michael Beschloss, author of Presidential Courage
“Woodrow Wilson continues to intrigue—and divide—us. At once an idealist expressing the noblest of liberal sentiments and a racist, an intellectual and a skilled politician, a man capable of great kindness and great vindictiveness—John Milton Cooper's masterly biography describes him warts and all. A full and fascinating study of the man and his turbulent times.” —Margaret MacMillan, author of Paris 1919
“A riveting account of one of America’s most intellectually magnetic, yet also enigmatic, presidents. John Milton Cooper Jr. does a superb job of portraying the aspirations of Wilson’s idealistic internationalism while at the same time detailing the realistic pitfalls that helped undermine it. Cooper has provided a fascinating read for those who want to understand a presidency that helped set the tone for U.S. foreign policy in the 20th Century.” — James A. Baker, III, 61st U.S. Secretary of State
“John Milton Cooper has written an important biography about a man who made—and continues to make—a large difference. An enjoyable and enlightening read.” —George P. Shultz, former Secretary of State
“A rich and readable study by a leading historian who has made Wilson and his times his life work. A fine combination of sound scholarship and compelling narrative.” —James MacGregor Burns, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Roosevelt: Soldier of Freedom 1940-1945
“Of all the important presidents of the 20th century, Woodrow Wilson has always been the least-known and seemed the least-knowable. Now, John Milton Cooper, Jr., has written a crisp clear eyed account of the life of this extraordinary but deeply flawed leader who began his career as a dynamic far-seeing reformer and ended it short-sighted and delusional. It is a Shakespearean story, beautifully and sensitively told by one of our finest historians.” —Geoffrey C. Ward, author of A First Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Delano Roosevelt
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The book follows him through his life course. It portrays his strengths and his weaknesses. He had an analytical mind, thought things through, and could be definitive in his decision-making. On the other hand, he could be very stubborn, sometimes creating problems when he served as President of Princeton, Governor of New Jersey, and President of the United States. He held views on race that were problematic.
Politically, he began as rather conservative, but won elections as a progressive Democrat. His background in the south helped shape some of his views, although he was hardly an unreconstructed Confederate.
The book also displays his personal life--his happy first marriage, the death of his wife, and his second marriage. . . .
The sad last years of his life are well depicted. It seems clear, from the author's research, that Wilson had had earlier medical problems that presaged the massive illness occurring late in his presidency.
In short, this is a fine biography of Woodrow Wilson.
Sic transit gloria Wilson.He was indeed a very controversial president and his actions are still felt today.Suffice it to mention the Versailles Treaty which in itself caused a lot of post-war problems and is regarded as a conclave which has brought only further divisions and hardships among the many nations that were scrutinized and debated then.
Wilson was a Democrat who ascended to the White House after many years of Republican administrations,and he wanted to be remembered as a president who had worked in order to change not only his country but also the world order.It was Wilson who guided his nation through WW1 and Professor Cooper is extremely adroit in demonstrating how many efforts Wilson has made in order to avoid America's entrance into this horrible war.Volens nolens,in the end he had no choice and the barbaric submarine war conducted by the Germans pin addition to the Zimmermann telegram were the last straws which were used by the president to convene the Congress in order to declare war against Germany and its Allies.The isolationist days of America were over and now Wilson went out on a crusade to make the world safe for democracy.
Another controversial aspect discussed at length in this fascinating study is the way the subject of the League of Nations was advocated by Wilson but proved to be unsuccessful.In spite of this, Wilson managed to change the way people and policy makers would think about international relations that would carry America into the United Nations era.
On the one hand Wilson appears to be detached and cool, while on the other hand he is deeply a passionate man in his private life and Professor Cooper is superb when describing the president's private affairs, his two wives(Ellen and Edith),his lover(Peck), his children and in-laws.Quotes from the president's letters are supplied throughout the study.
Yet Wilson also vehemntly resisted progress for civil rights,while his attorney general launched an aggressive attack on civil liberties.Race relations were totally ignored.Wilson was prepared to fight his enemies and adversaries with all the means he got from his days as president at Princeton.He was the msot intellectual president the USA has had and one of his books is still regarded a milestone for those who study politics and constitutional law.It was Wilson who took care to nominate the first Jewish judge ,Louis D. brandeis,to the Supreme Court,in the era when anti-semitism played a significant role in the USA.Despite coming from a religious home,Wilson did not go to war in 1917 because he thought God was telling him to do so.As the president put it:"War is not declared in the name of God:it is a human affair entirely".Unlike Theodore Roosevelt,his greatest rival,he never compared politics to religion and preaching and had never supported the greatest moral reform crusade of their time-Prohibition.He despised Fundamentalist manifestations.
The best part of the book is the second one where Wilson is busy in his efforts to establish peace in Europe.The negotiations had worn him out physically and emotionally and the decisions he made in the process of peace-making have stirred almost as much argument as his decision to enter the war.His famous Fourteen Points have caused a lot of controversies not only in Europe but also at home and this further drew fire from his opponents.His stroke which made him an invalide also led America to undergo the worst presidential crisis in American history.
As Professor Cooper points out, many saw or regarded Wilson as an Amerian Icarus,who perished because he flew too close to the sun.Boldness and thinking big marked the president all his life,and this charaterized him during his days at Princeton and as the governor of New Jersey.
This volume is very rich in details and is a very comprehensive combination of scholarship and narrative and shows an extraordinary but also deeply flawed president and leader who started hsi career as a dynamic reformer and ended it shortsighted and delusional.
That said, I do not completely agree with all of the author's conclusions regarding Woodrow Wilson's political motivations. I am firmly convinced that Wilson, like Teddy Roosevelt before him, ultimately fell prey to what I call "The Arthurian Myth" that so often afflicts men who wield power over the lives of others: i.e., "The King and the Land are One." In other words, these two men came to the personal conclusion, "As I go, so goes America."
Anyone reading this biography should keep in mind something to which the anthropologist Ian Tattersall has often alluded in his works: Never underestimate the human capacity for self delusion.