Veteran biographer Patricia O'Toole takes a look at the 28th U.S. President through the lens of his moral convictions, which played a decisive role in this policies—and their consequences—at home and abroad.
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.