The Moralist by Patricia O'Toole

The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made
by Patricia O'Toole
Simon & Schuster, 2018

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Post-Watergate biographers never seem to know quite what to do with the treacly, sacerdotal, honkingly priggish faux-intellectual moralizing of President Woodrow Wilson. Anyone who was around Wilson for longer than fifteen minutes knew that this element formed a very large part of his personality and world-view, but biographers living in the aftermath of Richard Nixon's sundering of the presidency tend to stumble over the naked ardor of Wilson's idealism. This inevitably results in distortions, even in good books like those by A. Scott Berg or August Heckscher, and it's the struggle at the heart of Patricia O'Toole's The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made.

O'Toole has a long track record of first-rate books, including the totally winning The Five of Hearts, about Henry Adams and his circle, and When Trumpets Call, about President Theodore Roosevelt's life after the White House. The Moralist is equally assured and authoritative, but it shows ample signs of deeper grappling; Wilson is a fiercely complex subject, and O'Toole is one of the first biographers to grant that complexity the multifaceted attention it warrants.

Refreshingly, that attention is firmly grounded in pragmatism and real-world Washington politics, which Wilson understood better than his detractors tended to grant (as he told one such person, “It would relieve a great many people of anxiety if they did not start with the assumption that I am a damn fool”). O'Toole spends a great deal of time on the kinds of reform-programs Wilson pursued, reforms that, as she puts it, “typically involved a recasting of an old ideal rather than a swan dive into the unknown.” Readers whose knowledge of Wilson's quixotic championing of the League of Nations has led them to consider him in some ways an effectual Chief Executive will be brought up short by some of O'Toole's assertions, excitingly so:

No previous president and only two of his successors (Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson) compiled legislative records as impressive as Wilson's. But moral force was not the only force in play. The reforms were long overdue, his party controlled both houses of Congress, and two persuasive members of his cabinet lobbied unceasingly for his demands. Yet I think it fair to say that the moral force of Wilson's case mattered.

The question of Wilson's moralism feeds interestingly into O'Toole's consideration of the First World War, but of course the real crux of the theme is the racism that has always dogged this president's legacy, rightfully so. As O'Toole points out, Wilson could have used an executive order to desegregate the civil service of his day but didn't; that he could have used a major speech or even part of a State of the Union address to raise the issue of “black yearnings for political equality,” but didn't. “He had drawn the parallel when he asked the Senate to support the women's suffrage amendment, but he never made the same argument on behalf of black America.”

The Woodrow Wilson – and especially the President Wilson – who emerges from the pages of The Moralist is a remarkably three-dimensional figure, at once more intriguing and more alien than the Wilson of any previous biography. Aficionados of presidential biography shouldn't miss this engrossing book.

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is