Reviewing The Moralist by Patricia O'Toole

Published 4.24.2020, though it was written well before then: This isn't a recently published book, but having recently (actually not so recently by this time) read it, what follows is my review. I picked up the book because I've recently been listening to a podcast called, "The Remnant," hosted by Jonah Goldberg. Goldberg is a Wilson hater, and that hatred goes far beyond the fact that Wilson was a democrat and Goldberg is a republican. I picked up the book from my local library because I decided to investigate whether or not there was any substance to the anti-Wilson rants.

I'd been taught (to the extent I was taught anything about Wilson, since World War I always received short shrift in the history classes I took in high school) that Wilson was a good president whose big idea was the failed League of Nations. And then we'd move onto to roaring twenties, etc.

Among the crimes Goldberg cites against Wilson is that he was racist and re-segregated the civil service. However, in the book, this is portrayed as the result of Wilson needed southern democratic votes, and so he makes a political trade, which yes hurt African-Americans. This doesn't mean what Wilson did was right, but I think Goldberg is overstating Wilson's intentions— at least based on the evidence presented in this book. The fact that Wilson was a Southerner is not enough to assume he was also racist.
I don't remember learning much about the first world war because this US didn't get involved until the end. I do remember learning that Wilson was instrumental in forming the League of Nations, but was not successful in convincing the Congress to ratify the treaty.

Obviously the high school survey type history courses I took (even the AP history class I took) could not go into the kind of detail that a biographer of a single person does. Based on the telling of this author, I'm not convinced that Wilson was as awful as his haters claim.

The historian who wrote the book was clearly trying to be even handed, and the book would have been twice as long had she delved into the civil service changes enacted under Wilson. I am not willing to stipulate to Goldberg's view based on this telling.
The author, Patricia O'Toole, does make does make it clear that Wilson was completely incapacitated by his final stroke, and should probably have either stepped down or been removed. However, there was no 25th amendment at that point, nor was there the 24 hour news cycle and instant communications.

Goldberg and others state that Wilson's wife became the de facto president, but in O'Toole's telling she doesn't do much but protect Wilson and create a charade to keep him in power. It's not like she tried to implement policy. Upon further reflection "Create a charade" is actually pretty damning.

All in all, Wilson is portrayed as an ill, uncompromising man who doesn't achieve his biggest ambition because of his myriad flaws. Had he been willing to compromise, some form of the League of Nations might have been approved by the Senate. At least that's the impression this reader gained.

The book was relatively easy to read, though it was a slog in sections. I will look for other writings about Woodrow Wilson.

Pandemic Addendum

The above was written months ago, and then the draft was set aside, because I decided I wanted to publish my review of Suicide of the West at the same time. It's been over a year since I read the book though, which meant I needed to at least skim through it again. In teh interim, Covid-19 entered and spread throughout the US.

The last pandemic to severely impact the US was in 1918. Ironically, this article about the spread of the 1918 "Spanish" Flu (in quote because it didn't originate in Spain) casts a much darker view of Wilson's actions. I don't remember the flu being addressed at all in the book— which doesn't mean that it wasn't, of course. It just means that it wasn't a major focus.

The article posits that Wilson contracted the flu while in Europe negotiating the end of the World War I. That was a focus in the book, but O'Toole is in the "it was a stroke" category. Wilson was not a well man at any point during his tenure, but the negotiations and subsequent failed campaign for the ratification of the League of Nations completely destroyed what was left of his health. And he'd had previous strokes, so it assuming his affliction in Europe was another one seemingly makes sense.

However, I don't think Wilson should get a pass for the mess he created because he may have come down with the flu.

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