His improbable rise and breathtaking fall have challenged biographers from William Allen White and Sigmund Freud to Herbert Hoover, Arthur S. Link, John Milton Cooper and A. Scott Berg. Now comes Patricia O’Toole, a deeply empathetic writer justly acclaimed for her lives of Henry Adams and Theodore Roosevelt. More than a global statesman, Ms. O’Toole’s Wilson is a lifelong teacher who seems never to have learned humility ... Ms. O’Toole does full justice to Wilson’s complexities, but it is with the coming of the war that her narrative takes on something close to Shakespearean dimensions. Two-thirds of The Moralist unfolds after August 1914, when a distracted president sat by the bedside of his dying wife and his European counterparts flirted with self-destruction ... It is in the author’s subtitle that Wilson’s larger legacy is defined. However stony the soil of 1919, seeds of Wilsonian idealism and global co-operation would take root in the United Nations, NATO, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Marshall Plan and more contemporary efforts to combat global warming. Despite recent setbacks, and Donald Trump’s helter-skelter challenge to the postwar order, 'the world of the twenty-first century is still more democratic than it was before Wilson threw his moral force against imperialism, militarism, and autocracy.' It is a fitting conclusion to this elegantly crafted portrait of a president as polarizing as he is consequential.
O’Toole is a gifted narrator with a knack for illuminating the significance of well-known people and events. She captures what each Allied leader wanted to achieve at the Paris peace conference without losing sight of the future they were arguing about ... It’s a pleasure to read such a smart and lucid presentation of so critical an aspect of the global past ... However, O’Toole deploys her literary skills in the service of a history both familiar and rather old-fashioned. There is nothing of significance in her book that the small army of Wilson biographers and scholars of the Progressive era have not been narrating and chewing over since his death in 1924. And, aside from insightful portraits of Wilson’s two beloved wives, O’Toole’s gaze is fixed throughout on the president and other famous and powerful politicians. Absent are the opinions and deeds of the voters and political activists who compelled Wilson to grapple with the issues of corporate power and the decision to go to war that defined his presidency ... Neither does her narrative really support the title she chose. Wilson was indeed a man of profound convictions—about the functions of government, the responsibilities of citizens, the supremacy of white people.
O’Toole, a skilled biographer...has written a commentary-infused biography that illuminates an ugly and reckless side of Wilson. Her book stands as a welcome corrective to a pair of sympathetic Wilson biographies from 2011 and 2013 — by John Milton Cooper Jr. and A. Scott Berg, respectively — that helped rehabilitate the 28th president’s reputation by putting flesh and emotion on what had long been a cold icon of the man. O’Toole narrows her focus to unpack Wilson’s moralism, and what she reveals is a reclusive academic with rigid ideals, one who never questions his moral certitude and who comes to the presidency in 1913 having never learned the basic political skills of negotiation and compromise ... The program for peace he foisted on Europe would play no small part in sowing the seeds for the next world war. By devoting a biographical study to Wilson’s exaggerated sense of moral rectitude, O’Toole has done students of American history a great service. She has exposed, in meticulous detail, the vanity and vacuity of Wilson the moralist.
...O’Toole is a lucid and elegant writer (her book about Adams was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), and The Moralist is a fluid account that feels shorter than its 600-plus pages. Despite its length, there isn’t a passage that drags or feels superfluous. She gives each of her many characters their due, rendering them vivid and also memorable — an effect not to be taken for granted in a serious history book covering an intricate subject ... Still, about the persistent racism — including Wilson’s flouting of his own democratic ideals in the Caribbean — O’Toole says some, but not enough ... On Wilson’s tortured entrance into World War I, she is truly superb ... As a study of Wilson’s relationship with Europe, and the intrigues of his foreign policy administration, the book is exemplary. But like her subject, O’Toole occasionally gets trapped by her own noble intentions: A biography called The Moralist, which takes Wilson’s 'great sense of moral responsibility' as its starting point, surely sets up expectations for a deeper exploration of just where he drew that line.
Many biographies of important individuals can feel like a slog to read (including perhaps the biographies I have written). Writing as dynamic as O’Toole’s makes every one of her books a pleasure to read, no matter the number of pages. The most important value of O’Toole’s new book is its sharp-edged treatment of Wilson — severely critical of his character and policies when appropriate, praising his idealism and persistence when appropriate. Most previous biographies of Wilson border on hagiography, or shrill negativity. Most previous Wilson biographers are intelligent individuals, but one of the most egregious shortcomings has been their misplaced reliance on Wilson aide and sometimes confidant Edward Mandell House. O’Toole explains how and why House can be an unreliable source ... After Wilson suffered a debilitating illness, he refused to accept his physical, emotional and cognitive limitations. Better than any previous biographer, O’Toole plumbs the depths of Wilson’s deception, interpreting the de facto presidency of spouse Edith Wilson as an immoral outrage.
This is an elegantly and wittily written, deeply nuanced, and finely argued biography, a notable addition to the large Woodrow Wilson collection ... Insightfully, she also shows how his frequent ailments, his intractability, and his second wife’s tending of him late in his tenure all have their precursors earlier in Wilson’s life. Domestic issues, such as race, are not covered as thoroughly as one would hope, but she is particularly strong in showing how Wilson’s Fourteen Points (a statement of principles for the peace following the war) were, to say the least, misguided or naive and, again, rooted in Wilson’s character. An essential contribution to presidential history.
The book provides an intimate portrait of Wilson’s life and identifies his 'deep sense of moral responsibility' as the guiding factor behind his actions and decision-making ... Unfortunately, Wilson’s interventions in Central America and the Caribbean are only granted a couple of passing mentions; scholars and students of foreign policy will notice that glaring omission. Nevertheless, this gracefully written account will likely renew debates on Wilson’s role in a century of U.S. foreign policy and the role of the United States in international affairs.
Many of O’Toole’s revelations break fresh ground, including the unreliability of Wilson adviser Edward M. House as a source. A bonus derives from the obvious relevance of the Wilson presidency to 21st-century politics. The ways in which Wilson expanded presidential powers bring to mind presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump. A balanced, welcome new addition to the Wilson shelf.