History professor writes definitive Woodrow Wilson biography

Nov. 5, 2009

by Stacy Forster

After a meteoric rise to the nation’s highest office, a new president working to make major structural changes to government and the economy enjoys majorities in Congress, but faces an unwillingness from opponents to cooperate with him.

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson. Source: Library of Congress

That storyline is even more Woodrow Wilson’s than it is Barack Obama’s, says history professor John Milton Cooper Jr., whose latest book, a biography of Wilson, was released Nov. 3.

Obama resembles Wilson more than any other recent American political figures, Cooper says.

“The eloquence and reflective intelligence that Obama shows, you have to go to Wilson to find that comparison,” Cooper says.

Woodrow Wilson: A Biography,” the first major biography of the nation’s 28th president in nearly two decades, has received early praise as a masterful work about the controversial president whose eight years in office ushered in a new era of American foreign policy.

“Cooper’s new book is an authoritative, up-to-date study of the great president,” says a review by Publisher’s Weekly. The biography “offers balanced and judicious assessments of the life and career of one of the nation’s most controversial leaders.”

Wilson’s career as a political scientist and president of Princeton University, then two years as New Jersey governor, left him with little foreign policy preparation for the presidency. Yet Wilson’s legacy is his decision to intervene on behalf of the Allies in World War I, “and much of what has happened in the world since then has flowed from that decision,” Cooper writes in the biography.

The triumph of winning the war contributed to Wilson’s biggest defeat, Cooper writes.

“He tried to thrash out the best settlement he could through arduous negotiations at the peace conference in Paris in 1919,” Cooper writes. “Those negotiations wore him out physically and emotionally and produced the Treaty of Versailles, which left sore winners and unrepentant losers… The first of the victors to renege was the United States, which never ratified the Treaty of Versailles and never joined the organization that Wilson helped establish to maintain the peace, the League of Nations.”

Along the way to becoming one of the nation’s foremost Wilson scholars, Cooper’s life has intersected several times with Wilson. Cooper attended Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D.C., went to Princeton and even saw Edith Wilson, the president’s second wife, lunching once at the Army and Navy Club in the nation’s capital.

Experts have called Cooper’s latest work a “crisp, clear-eyed account,” “a landmark work” and “a rich and thoughtful portrait” by an “accomplished Woodrow Wilson scholar.

“A rich and thoughtful portrait of a transformative, controversial and resonant president,” Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House,” says of Cooper’s Wilson biography. “Americans who remember Woodrow Wilson as a dour scholar-president will find a vastly more complicated and fascinating man in the pages of this sweeping new book.”

Cooper is also the author of “Breaking the Heart of the World: Wilson and the Fight for the League of Nations” and “The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt,” among other books.

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