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NewCityNet Good Wilson Effort

By Ben Wilson

APRIL 24, 2000: 

Woodrow Wilson by Louis Auchincloss (Penguin) $19.95, 128 pages

In the latest installment of the "Penguin Lives" series, the historian and novelist Louis Auchincloss shoots to tell the life story of Woodrow Wilson in a scant 125 pages, a task as daunting, if not quite as historically fraught, as Wilson's negotiations at Versailles after World War I.

Lucky for us, Auchincloss' efforts are more successful: Where Wilson ended up sacrificing his cherished "peace without victory" for a League of Nations that his own Senate would veto, Auchincloss creates a sprightly, intelligent portrait of a complex character, the same man Arthur Link spent five volumes on, and Roy Baker eight.

As a professor at, and then president of, Princeton; as the party cog-turned-progressive governor of New Jersey; and, finally, as president of a nation drawn torturously into a torturous war, Wilson makes for a fascinating subject, and Auchincloss chooses sagely those details that best illuminate his career and inner life. Much time is spent on Wilson's historically crucial relationship with his close friend and unofficial adviser, Col. Edward M. House; upon meeting, "something extraordinary at once clicked between them," and as they grew close, "House... brought to Wilson the one great faculty that he lacked: the faculty of dealing with a huge variety of different human beings."

House was thus crucial in Wilson's transformation from stodgy intellectual to man of the people (it was on a thirty-speech tour designed to sell the public on the Versailles Treaty that Wilson suffered his devastating third stroke) and political creature. He was the closest person to Wilson, except, of course, for his second wife, Edith, who loathed the colonel; these details are the gossipy goodies that all good biographies, even teeny ones like this, require.

Auchincloss treats Edith (who after the stroke jealously guarded Wilson's time and health, causing much concern as to who was really running post-war America) with what feels like unnecessary scorn; he goes so far as to speculate that her meddling may have been in large part responsible for the failure of the League of Nations. And there are other odd choices, as when the author devotes more than twelve precious pages to a short history of Wilson's career-long foe, the Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. Yes, Lodge was the President's bete noir, organizing the opposition to all his greatest ambitions, but space is tight -- let him get his own little biography, for God's sake.

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