Amity Shlaes, author of a fine book on FDR and the Depression, The Forgotten Man , and a biography of Calvin Coolidge I haven’t gotten to yet, has a long and quite educational review of Scott Berg’s new biography of Woodrow Wilson over at The National Interest .

I had my suspicions about the quality of the book , given the way its index revealed a scandalous refusal to mention important political science contributions to Wilson studies over the last couple decades, especially from the Claremont school. Shlaes is very fair to Berg, and shows you the book’s good points, but she ultimately confirms my quick-skim impression:

But his smooth professionalism means that [Berg] has offered a rather superficial account. For in focusing so diligently on Wilson’s tender psyche and health, he neglects to give attention to the consequences of Wilson’s style or his policies. What is missing, in other words, is an analysis of Wilson as president rather than celebrity or psychiatric case. This is a grave defect in a book seeking to offer a definitive account.

The review itself is a useful tour through certain highlights of Wilson’s career, and is remarkably sympathetic. For example, Shlaes underlines the fact that Wilson has remained one of the presidents most highly regarded by the general public.

As an economically-astute conservative, she makes some telling points against Wilson’s policies, but her general sympathy surprises me a bit, as one thing I have in common with Glenn Beck is that I cannot stand Woodrow Wilson!

In speech after speech, writing after writing, I find an arrogant man, and one grossly uncharitable to others. Pedantic, too, and in the most needling manner. The one Wilson biography I’ve read, by H.W. Brands, only made this impression stronger. Woodrow could seldom make a point, whether a good one or not, without framing it in a way that rubbed his imagined opponents’ faces in the dirt of intellectual shame. In writings and speeches, his manner had a certain British-aping hauteur, but without a trace of the mitigating humor.

For such traits, I would find him most distasteful even if he were a key conservative thinker, as opposed to a key progressive one.

I admit that, unlike the somewhat similarly insufferable Obama, Wilson had real substance. His writings teach you much about progressivism, and about American government in general, and on both scores a good deal more than Theodore Roosevelt’s can. Whereas, if Obama will be studied—beyond the presidential history—for his rhetoric, as a signpost of the times, as a fruit of earlier ideas, and as a combiner and re-brander of such ideas, no-one will go to his works looking for contributions to American political thought.

Still, the problem with reading a Wilson writing is you have to spend time with his personality for the length of it.

The Americans of that era were a different breed. To me, even more mysterious than their passing Prohibition, was their liking Woodrow Wilson. If he wasn’t wildly popular, only winning in 1912 due to a three-way race, he was popular enough. I understand why his domestic policies were initially liked, but as for why the public simply overlooked his unpleasant manner, I sure don’t get it. Somethin’ in the water in those days.

Explain it to me if you can.

BTW, have any of you read Shlaes’ Coolidge bio?

Articles by Carl Scott

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