washingtonpost.com  > Columns > Jonathan Yardley

'Ulysses S. Grant'

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, September 19, 2004; Page BW02

ULYSSES S. GRANT

By Josiah Bunting III. Times. 180 pp. $20

ULYSSES S. GRANT: The Unlikely Hero

Add Jonathan Yardley to your personal home page.

_____Arts & Living_____
The Books section has reviews as well as area literary events.
The Washington Post Book Club gives access to discounts, discussions and special events.

By Michael Korda. HarperCollins. 161 pp. $19.95

Presidential reputations rise and fall like the tides, though considerably less predictably. Harry Truman was derided for years after leaving office in 1953, but is now regarded (thanks in large measure to David McCullough's biography of him) as a great or near-great president. Dwight Eisenhower was regarded as ineffectual in many areas, especially civil rights, at the end of his term in 1961; now, thanks to general awareness of his probity and the prescience of his warning against the "military-industrial complex," he too is looked upon more favorably. John F. Kennedy, venerated after his assassination in 1963, is now seen in a less forgiving light, in particular because of endless disclosures about his womanizing.

Now the time appears to be at hand for a reappraisal of Ulysses S. Grant, not merely as a general and a leader of men -- for which, in fact, his reputation has always been high -- but as a two-term president. This may have something to do with the war in Iraq; Grant's blunt, brutal pursuit of "unconditional surrender" and his understanding that war is not a halfway business look rather good to many who question the strategy and commitment of the present military leadership and the administration to whom it is accountable.

Whatever the explanation for the revival of interest in and sympathy for Grant, it certainly gives the appearance of being a major revision. As Josiah Bunting III puts it in the better of these two perceptive, well-written brief biographies, "the counts against him remain, sullen and immovable: drunk, butcher, scandal-monger." Though his performance during the Civil War has been widely if not universally admired -- Michael Korda points out that his most successful Civil War campaigns are "studied all over the world in staff colleges, still today" -- his presidency has been widely scorned, especially because of the many scandals that took place during his watch.

In both of these books that judgment is reconsidered and mostly, if not wholly, reversed. Korda (whose book, forthcoming Sept. 30, is among the first in a new series called "Eminent Lives") is more interested in Grant as general than as president, indeed devotes fewer than 20 pages to his presidency; nonetheless he concludes that Grant "exerted a calming influence on a country that had only just emerged from a bloody civil war" and that, "taking it all in all, his presidency was not the failure that historians have portrayed." Bunting understandably pays more attention to Grant's White House years since his book is part of a series called "The American Presidents," but in doing so he probably puts Grant's life into more accurate perspective, and the favorable judgments he reaches are less grudging than Korda's.

Both books are deeply sympathetic to Grant the human being; both authors clearly (and properly) admire him. Bunting: "He was hugely but modestly self-reliant; he was accustomed to making do with what he was given, without asking for more; he defined himself in action, not talk; he was dutiful, intensely loyal to superiors and friends, brave in the way that Tacitus called Agricola brave: unconsciously so." Korda: "Grant had that rare quality among professional soldiers, even at the very beginning of his career, of feeling deeply for the wounded and dead of both sides. It was not weakness -- it was that he spared himself nothing. Grant saw what happened in war, swallowed his revulsion, pity and disgust, and went on."

In many respects he was, as Bunting puts it, a "profound puzzle." He was taciturn to an extreme degree, "rarely an explainer or justifier." He often has been the victim of "ungovernable indulgence in a weird kind of class depredation: the distaste of the well-bred and educated for the provincial and, somehow, crude Ulysses," with the result that "in the 120 years since his death, friends, rivals and enemies, biographers, and historians have condescended" to him. Korda notes what he calls Grant's "touchiness," explaining that "it was not a question of vanity or personal pride so much as the fear on the part of a man who had always been underestimated as a boy and looked down on by people who assumed they were better than he was." The same words, obviously, could be written about Lyndon Johnson, though LBJ possessed nothing comparable to the gentlemanly reticence with which Grant disguised whatever insecurities he may have felt.

He seems to have been bothered by no doubts in his life as a soldier. He was all confidence and competence. After discovering, in an encounter early in his army days, that the enemy he was about to attack was every bit as fearful as he was, he set fear aside and acquired an implacable calm. Bunting, who served in Vietnam and later was superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute, says that "Grant was willing to make decisions and live with their consequences, sustained, as William Tecumseh Sherman once said, by a constant faith in victory. . . . Grant understood how to get men to do what he wanted them to do, and this quality led him to the victories that propelled him to his early fame. There was an elemental ordinariness to him that his soldiers liked and that made their relationship easy and productive." Korda, who served in the British armed forces, offers a complementary analysis:

"Grant understood topography, the importance of supply lines, the instant judgment of the balance between his own strengths and the enemy's weaknesses, and above all the need to keep his armies moving forward, despite casualties, even when things have gone wrong -- that and the simple importance of inflicting greater losses on the enemy than he can sustain, day after day, until he breaks. Grant the boy never retraced his steps. Grant the man did not retreat -- he advanced. Generals who do that win wars."

The American people understood that during and after the Civil War, and so did Abraham Lincoln. The bond between the two men was immediate and strong, and permitted Grant to pursue his plans without interference from above, indeed with unconditional support. It was entirely understandable that the people turned to him after Lincoln's assassination and Andrew Johnson's failed presidency. They felt about him just the way they felt more than eight decades later about Eisenhower: They wanted the conquering hero in the White House.

That he managed to serve there with not-inconsiderable distinction is attributable to his decency, his probity and, by no means least, his luck. As Bunting points out, Hamilton Fish was reluctant to serve him as secretary of state, but Grant persisted, and he finally agreed; Fish's eight years on the job were, in Bunting's judgment, "superb." Grant was unlucky in some of his personal and political associations -- he possessed, Korda writes, a "natural inability to distinguish cheats, sharpers, thieves, and con artists from honest men" -- with the unhappy consequence that his presidency was afflicted with scandals. Bunting, who analyzes these far more thoroughly than Korda does, concludes that Grant was in no way "personally culpable in any of these episodes" but that "there remains an unavoidable impression of a certain moral obtuseness in Grant." This no doubt is accurate, as has been all too true of all too many other presidents before and since.

Both authors understand that Grant was admired and loved because he was American to the core. As president he was, in Korda's view, "the symbol of . . . America's military power, the integrity of its institutions, its basic decency and good intentions, and above all its rock-solid common sense." Bunting, writing about the two-year world tour that Grant took (accompanied by his beloved wife, Julia) at the end of his presidency, strikes a similar chord:

"On arrival in England he was saluted as an American hero and champion of the interests of working-class people everywhere; as a man who had saved the American union and been the instrument in the ending of chattel slavery. He was viewed also as a kind of American everyman: as the incarnation of the great democracy's virtues and its ingratiating foibles. . . . Grant [was] an authentic national hero, he had become a hero of a particular kind, one whose reputation transcended flaws and mistakes in judgment and failures as president."

As all of these quotations make plain, both authors see Grant in strikingly similar terms. There is one notable exception. Korda sees Grant as "no great enthusiast for attempts 'to enfranchise the Negro, in all his ignorance,' " and suggests that he was lukewarm about black rights and opportunities. Bunting argues quite to the contrary, that "after the war, during Reconstruction and in the eight years of his presidency, Grant's commitment to the freedom of black Americans . . . sustained his work to preserve these gains long after most citizens in the North had lost interest in them or had given in to an indulged exasperation with their costs and difficulties." Like most white Americans of his (or any other) day, he moved slowly to that view, but once there he embraced it wholly, becoming "the central force in the achievement of civil rights for blacks, the most stalwart and reliable among all American presidents for the next eighty years." The evidence leaves little doubt that Bunting is right.

The end of Grant's life was both sad and noble. An investment firm to which he had foolishly committed such fortune as he had was undone by its founder's dishonesty, and Grant was bankrupt. At about the same time he learned that he had terminal throat cancer. Desperate to assure Julia's financial security after his death, he overcame his qualms and agreed to write his memoirs. He completed them barely hours before his death, his final bequest to the country he had served so nobly: a literary masterpiece, two volumes in which the stamp of his greatness is on every page. •

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company