Walter Isaacson, in his review of My Life by Bill Clinton (Book World, July 4), says in a seemingly scornful tone that "the best presidential autobiography, or so we were informed repeatedly in the walkup to the Clinton launch, is Ulysses S. Grant's Personal Memoirs." He contrasts the 19th-century president with what he thinks are the salient characteristics of the baby boomer: such things as "unabashed ambition" and "sensitive personal insights suitable for sharing," and that Clinton in particular was "filled with great promise alternately grasped and squandered."
Well, I won't be purchasing Clinton's book any time soon -- I already have a door stop, and I don't own a coffee table -- but I do have Grant's memoirs, and I don't regret the purchase. The idea that self-reflective depth is the property of the baby boomers -- which Isaacson does not quite say -- would be quickly dispelled by a perusal of Grant's fascinating book.
Grant, unlike Clinton, does not take himself too seriously. He is humble, self-mocking and, shockingly for a former president, clear-eyed about American history in a way that seems almost like modern-day politically correct revisionism. Consider this discussion of the Mexican war, which sounds like something that would be written by a native Mexican:
"[Texas] had a very sparse population, until settled by Americans. . . . These colonists paid very little attention to the supreme government, and introduced slavery into the state almost from the start, though the constitution of Mexico did not . . . sanction that institution. . . . The occupation, separation and annexation [of Texas to the United States] were . . . a conspiracy to acquire territory out of which slave states might be formed for the American Union." He writes that war was "forced upon Mexico."
Personal insights? Listen to Grant explain his objection to the concept of dueling, in sentiments that might have been expressed by a modern gangsta rapper: "If any man should wrong me to the extent of my being willing to kill him, I would not be willing to give him the choice of weapons with which it should be done, and of the time, place and distance separating us, when I executed him."
Like Clinton, Grant has an agenda. The memoirs, despite their length, end with the end of the Civil War and avoid discussion of his failed presidency (Grant, not Clinton, was the one who truly had "great promise alternately grasped and squandered").
Isaacson writes that Clinton's memoir is "suited for the Age of Oprah." Having seen the Oprah interview, which I guess qualifies as a Cliffs Notes version of the book, I can keep my $35. But I urge anyone interested in the inner mind of a legend to obtain Grant's memoirs. Note to Isaacson: We were "informed repeatedly" that Grant's book was the best presidential autobiography because it is.
How Rural Is It?
I read Ted Van Dyk's review of Garrison Keillor's Homegrown Democrat (Book World, July 18) and would have given it more credence if it were not so obvious that Van Dyk had been taken in by Keillor's hype. Keillor does not represent those from the "Heart of Minnesota" any more than does Edward Kennedy, but rather the heart of Manhattan, where he lives. He's not from middle America and only lived in Minnesota as a child and even then in suburbia, not in rural "Lake Wobegone." He is so ignorant about rural America that he doesn't know that there are such things as books about hunting (he said so on his radio show). Hello . . . Minnesota's state meat is venison. Sorry, but Van Dyk has been duped.
Ted Van Dyk replies:
It is clear that one man's meat is another's poison. I have no idea whether Keillor knows that venison is Minnesota's state meat. Having served for several years as Hubert Humphrey's assistant, and having spent much time in the state, I do know, however, that Keillor's voice is authentic Minnesota Democrat-Farm-Labor. And I'd add that, from his vantage point in Nokesville, McDowell's is in question. I'll bet he doesn't even know what Virginia's state meat is.
The 17th Karmapa
It is a disappointment that Jeffery Paine's review of The Dance of 17 Lives: The Incredible True Story of Tibet's 17th Karmapa by Mick Brown (Book World, June 27) fails to investigate the validity of that book's conclusions before giving it an endorsement.
Paine fails to mention that the letter recognizing Orgyen Trinley as the Karmapa is likely a forgery. The letter's handwriting and style are surely those of Situ Rinpoche himself. Yet Situ has refused to release this letter for scientific testing, claiming that such testing would be disrespectful to a "holy object." Brown uncritically accepts this rationale, even though it runs directly counter to the show-me skepticism traditional of Tibetan Buddhism and creates much cause for doubt.
Second, Paine accepts Brown's assertion that Orgyen Trinley's candidacy is somehow more valid because the Dalai Lama supports him. In fact, under Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the Dalai Lama does not have authority to approve head lamas for any other school of Tibetan Buddhism besides his own Gelugpa lineage. His role as political leader of the Tibetan government-in-exile does not grant him spiritual authority over the three autonomous Tibetan Buddhist schools outside his own. HH Dalai Lama is not authorized to recognize the Karmapa, who is the leader of the Karma Kagyu school. Only the administration of the late 16th Karmapa is authorized to validate his reincarnation.
Finally, Paine incorrectly implies that because Mick Brown is not a disciple, he must be objective. While Brown may indeed employ a "neutral journalistic tone," his narrative betrays obvious bias toward Orgyen Trinley and the lamas who support him. In particular, through details large and small, Brown offers flattering descriptions of Situ Rinpoche and Akong Tulku that contrast starkly with his denigrating portraits of supporters of the other candidate, Thaye Dorje.
Paine did your readers a disservice by failing to note this bias and failing to point out that Brown uncritically accepts the accounts of Orgyen Trinley's supporters, and perhaps as a result of this bias, producing many errors of fact and conclusion in his book. Interested readers can find a detailed discussion of Brown's errors at www.karmapa-issue.org.
Director, North America Office International
Karma Kagyu Buddhist Organization
Natural Bridge, Va.
Jeffery Paine replies:
Jay Landman's charges about the Dalai Lama and especially about the forged letter are exhaustively refuted not only in Mick Brown's The Dance of 17 Lives but also in the other major books on the subject, Michele Martin's Music in the Sky and Lea Terhune's The Politics of Reincarnation. Mr. Landman represents the position of Shamar Rinpoche, whom, unfortunately, all three books paint as doing the Tibetan cause harm in order to secure the profits from the Karmapa's holdings for himself. I hope, and would like to believe, that there are honorable motives for Shamar Rinpoche's actions that all three books have overlooked.