“I read my first book on Woodrow Wilson at age 15, and I was hooked,” says A. Scott Berg, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of four bestselling biographies including Lindbergh and Max Perkins. Berg has just completed Wilson, his long-awaited biography of the 28th president of the United States (Putnam, Sept.).
“When most people think of Woodrow Wilson, they see a dour minister’s son who never cracked a smile, where in fact he was a man of genuine joy and great sadness,” Berg tells Show Daily. “I did not write a diplomatic history or a history of foreign affairs in his life. I wanted the reader to walk through his life and see it with his eyes.”
Complex and enigmatic, Woodrow Wilson was president from 1913 to 1921 and led America into WWI with the now famous slogan: “to make the world safe for democracy.” He championed an ambitious Progressive agenda that set the stage for later initiatives such as the New Deal and the Great Society.
“I think it is important for readers to know that it is possible to bring intellectualism and idealism to the White House and still be political enough to advance an agenda,” says Berg, who adds that Wilson’s example is also cautionary. “In the beginning of his presidency he got a lot done with Congress, but because he was stubborn in his idealism and would not give an inch, he didn’t get the one thing he really wanted, the League of Nations.”
Drawing from new caches of documents and personal letters, Berg says he did not uncover anything stunning about Wilson, “like a lost year in Tahiti.” He did discover a previously unpublished threat that would have been “utterly impossible” to keep secret today.
As to writing technique, Berg often compares himself to an impressionist painter who uses “thousands of dabs of paint” to create a literary canvas. The new material did help him develop a penetrating emotional portrait of Wilson, whom he calls “a tragic idealist.” He adds, “Big things happened to him. He had a beloved wife die while in the White House. He was bereft and then he fell in love again during the presidency.
“In all of the reading I have done on Wilson, I have never seen a book that captured the emotional side of the man,” says Berg. “I wanted to do that book.”
A. Scott Berg will be appearing on the Downtown Author Stage today at 1 p.m.