By his own estimation, A. Scott Berg was probably the only 15-year-old kid on the block to have a picture of Woodrow Wilson hanging on his bedroom wall. In the 45 years since, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author's admiration for Wilson has only grown, culminating in his long-awaited biography
of the 28th president of the United States, set to be released this month.
"Woodrow Wilson is the most commanding American figure of the 20th century. I think he really brought the U.S. into the 20th century," Berg told Newsmax in an exclusive interview.
So commanding a figure, in fact, that Berg believes President Barack Obama should take a few pages from his playbook.
"Wilson was not afraid to mix it up. He felt the most important tool he had as president was sustained dialogue," Berg said. "That is, he wanted a conversation going on all the time between the legislative and executive branches. He was a very activist president."
Berg notes that during his presidency, from 1913 to 1921, Wilson called 25 joint sessions of Congress. Whenever the president had an important issue to address, he would show up in Congress, where a visit was often incomplete unless it included Wilson twisting arms and grabbing people as they came off the senate floor.
"And that was the important thing to him," Berg said. "And that was my call to arms to Barack Obama: Get yourself down to the president's room. Have a dialogue with these people. Don't just go from crisis to crisis and say, 'Here’s the next thing I want,' and then you have this last-minute fight about it and then it doesn’t happen.
"Be more like Wilson — have a dialogue that goes on for months," Berg said. "And get to know everybody. And their opinions on the subject. That’s what Wilson did. It’s harder to turn down people when you have a dialogue going with them."
Berg, who acknowledges that Obama faces a hostile Republican-led House whose leaders disagree with him on most issues, has more advice for the commander in chief: Go the extra mile.
"Here's what it boils down to," said Berg, who was speaking last week before Obama decided to put the issue of a military strike in Syria before the U.S. Congress.
"Wilson believed that the executive branch and the legislative branch should cooperate. And I mean that quite literally: They should cooperate the government. That the two branches should work together.
"Wilson always went the extra mile, quite literally,"
Berg explained. "He would drive down from the White House to the Congress. So I would like Obama to go the extra mile. I'd like to see him more present down there. I’m sure he’s doing a lot of behind-the-scenes things that we don't know. But I think it would help the country and I think it would help those legislators if it was more public. More transparency."
Berg, the celebrated author of four bestselling biographies, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Lindbergh," said he chose Wilson as his most recent subject for two reasons.
"I’ve long been writing a series of biographies of 20th century American cultural figures and each one has been a slice of the apple pie, if you will ..." said Berg, who has been working on the biography
for well over a decade. "I had never written about a southern figure. And then there is the most personal reason: I had been interested in Wilson since I was 15 years old when I first started reading about him, and after 45 years of reading I finally felt able to take him on."
Berg typically approaches his subjects with reverence — it’s tough to spend a decade with someone you don’t admire. It means spending years of research sifting through primary sources like letters, diaries, and hearing transcripts and periodicals of the time. That deep immersion allows Berg to take a fresh look at his subjects and clear away the cobwebs of myth and misperception that have long clung to certain cultural icons like Wilson.
A master of the biographical art whose books, like those of David McCullough or Doris Kearns Goodwin, are often the "big" books of the literary season, Berg depicts Wilson not as the dour figure many remember, but as a multifaceted man of intense passion and emotion.
"Most people don’t realize the romantic aspect of him. I really wanted above all to humanize Woodrow Wilson with this book and to show those aspects of his personality," Berg said. "To show that he had these lifelong friendships and he was a passionate lover. He wrote thousands of love letters. In fact, I’ll be honest, I read them all, but at a certain point I just got sick of them. How many ways can you say I love you?"
Courting his first wife Ellen, Wilson wrote love letters so passionate she said they kept her "in an almost constant state of intoxication." Yet less than a year and a half after burying his first wife in 1914, he married his second, Edith Bolling Galt.
Berg's biography ultimately may do for Wilson what McCullough did for Harry Truman: reinsert an oft-overlooked president back into the contemporary debate.
"We have very short memories in this country. If it didn’t happen on TV in the last few months we don’t know it," Berg said. "And so here’s Wilson, who was president exactly 100 years ago. We might as well be talking about someone from the 19th century or someone from the 9th century.
"People just don’t really have a clue who he was. And they don't realize that so much of American life today all goes back to Wilson."
Women getting the right to vote, the eight-hour work day, the country's foreign policy, and, in many respects, the U.S. economy — all can be traced back to Wilson, Berg said.
"I think he is someone everyone today should know about," the biographer said.
Berg laments that, like the subject they profile, most biographies on Wilson have been too academic in nature.
"He hasn't had a humanizing biography. Roosevelt, Robert Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, they’ve all had really rich biographies written of them," he said. Unfortunately, "the general public just don’t have a general sense of Woodrow Wilson."
That's one reason why Berg opens his 832-page tome with a quote from William Wordsworth’s classic poem, "Character of the Happy Warrior." Wilson, a devoutly religious man, considered Wordsworth one of his favorite poets. But the meaning of the stanzas runs deeper.
"That poem has come to be used to talk about certain politicians — Al Smith was the famous happy warrior, and Hubert Humphrey — those people who are politicians who are really in it for the love of it and for the right reasons," Berg explained. "But the deeper reason is ... that was just a pure description of Woodrow Wilson. ‘Draws his breath in confidence of Heaven’s applause.' That’s what Wilson lived for. Heaven’s applause."
Though he isn’t certain yet what his next project is, or who he might want to spend another decade with, Berg does know he’ll be spending the next year traveling the country to talk about Woodrow Wilson.
"I'll almost be like a missionary," he said.
With that missionary spirit, biographer and subject are providentially bound by the character of the happy warrior.
A. Scott Berg will be speaking at the 92nd Street Y, a prominent nonprofit community and cultural center in Manhattan, at 7 p.m. Sept. 11. For tickets to the event go here now: www.92Y.org
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