Patricia O’Toole (LSA ‘68) grew up in the small, far-north town of Rogers City, Michigan. Population: 2,695.

As she tells it, reading biographies was a key part of her intellectual upbringing. “As a little kid up in the boondocks...I wanted to know about the larger world, and biography was a really easy way to do that,” she says. She started with biographies of Louis Armstrong, FDR, and others from the children’s section of her local library. After flying through those, she moved on to the biographies written for adults. What she loved about the genre, she says, is that it “took me to far-off places and into the past and allowed me to walk around in somebody else’s shoes, trying to feel what they felt and testing myself against what they did. Could I be that brave? Would I ever be that smart?”

She arrived on campus at the moment when Vietnam War protests erupted. It was 1964, two years after U-M students had helped to draft the Port Huron Statement, the manifesto of Students for a Democratic Society. After majoring in journalism and graduating with honors in 1968, she took a job at a wire service for business and financial news, but in the mid-1970s, she struck out on her own as a freelance writer.

Over the next thirty years, O’Toole would write for a number of household-name publications, such as the Los Angeles Times, Money, Forbes, Glamour, Smithsonian, Town and Country, Fortune, and the New York Times Magazine. She covered topics ranging from oil spills to corporate mergers to canoeing in Vermont, as well as pieces like,“Should You Lie About Your Age?”and “Sex and Your Salary” for Vogue.  

But it wasn’t until the early 1990s that she found what, in hindsight, seems to have been the true calling of that curious kid from the boondocks: She became a biographer. Her first biographical work, The Five of Hearts: An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and His Friends, 1880-1918, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Critics Circle Award, and Los Angeles Times Book Prize. In 2005, she followed with When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt After the White House.

Images courtesy of Simon & Schuster

It was during the research and writing for the Roosevelt book that the seeds of her new book were planted. Even after Trumpets was released, she remained “obsessed” with some of the material about the First World War she’d unearthed in her research, and she returned to France to visit battlefields and brainstorm ways she could keep writing about it. She considered writing a book about President Woodrow Wilson’s role as commander-in-chief, but because Wilson delegated so much of the country’s wartime operations, that idea turned out to be a non-starter.

But when her editor suggested a more straightforward Wilson biography, O’Toole took to the idea. The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made was published earlier this year and has already garnered substantial praise.

O’Toole says the period of Wilson’s presidency provides a contrast to our own tumultuous times. For example, in comparison to President Trump, a self-described nationalist who campaigned on “America first,” Wilson argued “that to be a great nationalist, you had to be a great internationalist,” O’Toole says. In 1919, during an address in St. Louis, Wilson expounded on his view. “The greatest nationalist is the man who wants his nation to be the greatest nation, and the greatest nation is the nation which penetrates to the heart of its duty and mission among the nations of the world.”

O’Toole points to Wilson’s League of Nations as a first draft for many of the global institutions that rose from the wreckage of the Second World War, including the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). And, indeed, Wilson’s international influence stretched far into the century that followed his presidency. His idealism, she writes, “remained a staple of American Cold War rhetoric.”

*  *  *

In 2016, O’Toole retired from Columbia University, where she had taught since 1995, bought a house in Maine, and returned to a life of full-time writing. Last January, almost exactly a century after Wilson delivered his “Fourteen Points” speech to Congress, which laid out Wilson’s vision for a lasting peace that could end World War I, she delivered the final manuscript of The Moralist to her local post office.

In a recent CNN poll ranking great presidents, Wilson dropped from number six to number 10, a slide O’Toole attributes to waning support for internationalism and Wilson’s less-than-stellar record on race. But, as a historian, she says she’s less interested in greatness than historical impact. “If we talked about ‘consequential presidents’ instead of ‘great presidents,’ Wilson would always be in the top four, with Washington, Lincoln, and FDR.,” she says. He passed more substantive legislation in his first term than any of his predecessors—the modern income tax, key antitrust laws, and the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Reserve System. “And his big idea—that global problems require global solutions—is still sound,” she says. He mattered in November of 1918, and he matters now.


Top image treatment by Julia Lubas