Woodrow Wilson came to politics from the academy, and undoubtedly his university experiences prepared him for the political challenges of the presidency. As unlikely a president as he was, his success in pushing through a reform agenda surprised his critics and the Democratic Party bosses who thought they could control him. With his comprehensive Wilson (Putnam, $40), Pulitzer Prize- winning biographer A. Scott Berg relies on fresh anecdotes and historical nuggets to paint a thorough, engaging, and refined account of Wilson’s life as an academic and a politician. Berg focuses on the political genius of the first “modern” president, but also on blemishes that marred Wilson’s career, including his atrocious record on race and freedom of expression.
William Seward received welcome attention from historian Doris Kearns Goodwin in her landmark study of Lincoln and the men he appointed to his cabinet, Team of Rivals. But decades after the last major biography of Seward, the one-time presidential aspirant and Secretary of State deserved another thorough examination, which Walter Stahr offers in Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man (Simon & Schuster, $32.50). Stahr, who had a career in law and finance before turning full time to writing biographies (his first book was about another behind-the-scenes power, John Jay), unearthed a trove of documents that enabled him to challenge some of the conventional wisdom about Seward’s role in several of Lincoln’s most important decisions regarding treatment of the South during the Civil War—and more.
History does not often remember the successful gambles of presidents. Rather, we endlessly analyze Watergate, Vietnam, and the Bay of Pigs disaster. In Ike’s Bluff (Little, Brown, $29.99), an in-depth look at the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower written by Evan Thomas, we are shown how this often overlooked commander-inchief wagered everything and won. Confronted by the horrors of thermonuclear war and a bloody stalemate in Korea, Ike brandished his greatest weapon in creating foreign policy: the poker face. Hiding his true intentions from even his closest friends and family, Ike maintained peace, in a time when, “the only thing worse than losing a global war is winning one.”