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Originally published Sunday, September 15, 2013 at 4:06 AM

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‘Wilson’: Scott Berg’s life of an academic turned war president

A. Scott Berg’s “Wilson” is a highly readable biography of Woodrow Wilson, the professor-turned-politician who resisted America’s entry into World War I, then embraced it. Berg appears at Town Hall Seattle on Wednesday Sept. 18.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

A. Scott Berg

The author of “Wilson” will discuss his book at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Town Hall Seattle. Tickets are $5; for more information go to townhallseattle.org.

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‘Wilson’

by A. Scott Berg

Putnam, 818 pp., $40

“A. Scott Berg Completes Woodrow Wilson Book,” ran a headline last January in The New York Times. Few authors rate that sort of play, but Berg’s 2003 memoir of Katharine Hepburn had been a best-seller, and his biography, “Lindbergh” (1998), won a Pulitzer Prize.

“Wilson” is a decade’s work by one of the nation’s top biographers in a highly readable style. Its subject is the man who was president 100 years ago, a professor turned politician who plunged the nation into one of its bloodiest conflicts.

Among presidents, Wilson was the only career academic. As president of Princeton University he was renowned as an orator, and was elected governor of New Jersey in 1910. Two years later he was elected president, “arguably the least experienced person to hold the highest political office in the land,” Berg writes. Wilson’s ascent was even faster than Barack Obama’s.

Wilson was an idealist whose words moved millions. After the powers of Europe became entrenched in World War I, he offered to settle it on the idea of “peace without victory.” They declined. Pushed to enter the war, Wilson said there was such a thing as being “too proud to fight,” a phrase that baffled the public. Running for re-election in 1916, Wilson beat the Republican nominee, Charles Evans Hughes, with the slogan, “He kept us out of war.”

Then he got us in. Berg portrays a reluctant president, with boyhood memories of the Civil War, but engulfed in a tide of fervor. Wilson justified his eventual choice by saying that America would go to war “to make the world safe for democracy.” The war didn’t do that, and in a year and a half more than 112,000 American soldiers died of combat and disease, twice as many as would die in Vietnam.

That was Wilson’s way: Set a lofty goal and insist that that was what mattered. At war’s end he spent half a year in Paris trying to convince the Allies not to grab territory and impose a vindictive peace on Germany. The Treaty of Versailles did both of those things, but it included Wilson’s idea of an international League of Nations, and he insisted the Senate ratify it.

Berg’s biography presents the chairman of Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, as a Republican obstructionist on the treaty, which is what Wilson thought of him. It doesn’t take seriously Lodge’s position that the treaty surrendered Congress’ right to declare war.

Wilson could have had the treaty by giving in on this one point, which leading Democrats urged him to do. He wouldn’t, and the Senate voted it down. Wilson has had a lasting influence on U.S. foreign policy — much of its moral tone is from him — but he left office a beaten man.

His final fight for the League was a national campaign that included Seattle and Tacoma. The stress almost killed him; after he returned he suffered a major stroke. For months he was in the care of his wife, Edith, who was accused of taking over his job. Berg’s book shows that to a disturbing extent, she did.

Berg’s biography has a fine feeling for Wilson and the story of his life, but he does present Wilson mostly from Wilson’s point of view. For a more critical look at the 20th century’s first war president, the reader will have to look elsewhere, such as Thomas Fleming’s “The Illusion of Victory” (2003).

Bruce Ramsey is a Seattle Times editorial writer.

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