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A Biography

A-WoodrowWilsonJohn Milton Cooper, Jr., Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is one of the nation’s foremost scholars on Wilson and his era.

The Topic: The Federal Reserve. America’s role in the world order. The balance between security and dissent. These are all topics likely to send pundits fulminating, throwing in the names of a few past American presidents. But not many reference Woodrow Wilson—and according to Cooper, many of those that do, get it wrong. In this new biography, Cooper makes the case for Wilson as one of the nation’s great presidents, approaching his life story with a revisionist bent. For example, he argues that Wilson’s academic career did not make him an abstract, intellectual leader; rather, it proved an important training period for the presidency. From his gripping electoral contest with Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft to World War One and its aftermath, many key events in American history will also be illuminated by those who study Wilson’s life.
Knopf. 720 pages. $35. ISBN: 0307265412.

Boston Globe 4.5 of 5 Stars
"The preeminent living historian of Wilson and his era, Cooper has studied the man and his times for decades. … This book is deeply, indeed exhaustively researched, and beautifully, often movingly narrated. It is far and away the best biography of the 28th president we have, and as such it is unlikely to be surpassed." Erez Manela

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"[U]nlike the other leading presidents of the 20th century … Wilson has attracted comparatively little attention from biographers. … Cooper’s powerful biography will help increase popular understanding of Woodrow Wilson and restore him—faults and all—to his place in the pantheon of leading American presidents." Terry Hartle

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Woodrow Wilson belongs securely to that imposing genre known as the definitive biography, the sort of work that it takes a lifetime to achieve and, the biographer hopes, a generation to surpass. … Cooper presents a powerful, deeply researched and highly readable case for keeping Wilson in the top ranks of American presidents, even if history might be better served by doing away with the contest altogether." Beverly Gage

Providence Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Cooper does not explicitly take on all the stereotypes of Wilson, but he counters many of them, starting with the most recent. Without naming names, Cooper severs the connection that supporters and critics of the Iraq War both claim to find between Wilson and George W. Bush as war leaders. … [W]e are all in Cooper’s debt for this clear, vigorous, three-dimensional portrait of a president who for nearly a century has often been reduced to cliché." Luther Spoehr

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The name Woodrow Wilson remains an integral part of history, from the foundation in his name at his alma mater, Princeton, to statues in France and Great Britain. He’s the least understood American president, but certainly one of the greatest in John Milton Cooper’s book." Bob Hoover

Critical Summary

It is hard to doubt that Cooper’s book is now the definitive biography of Wilson: professors from Harvard, Brown, and Yale gave it this accolade in their reviews. These and other critics tended to praise Cooper for disentangling Wilson from the contemporary use and abuse of his legacy; as Cooper puts it, the 28th president "was no Wilsonian, just Woodrow Wilson." Reviewers were also impressed by Cooper’s chapters on the ample domestic agenda of a president normally remembered for foreign affairs. Some critics took issue, however, with Cooper’s attempts to attribute some of Wilson’s faults (such as the institution of racial segregation of federal agencies or the crackdown on dissent during WWI) to his advisers or cabinet members. But all these critics indicated that these flaws were more than outweighed by the book’s many strengths, suggesting that if readers want a book on Woodrow Wilson, this is the one.