The character of Presidents is often judged by the adversities they have overcome-- or, conversely, not have had to overcome. Lincoln overcame depression, TR overcame the loss of his first wife, FDR overcame polio (though he didn’t, even if he managed to live with it until his early death from a heart condition caused in part by how much stress he put on his heart because his legs were useless). JFK overcame Addison’s Disease and Lyndon Johnson never overcame his awe and dependence on the leftover JFK Harvard crowd that filled his Cabinet. Ron Chernow’s new biography, “Grant”, gives us a chance to reevaluate the way we judge Presidents. He thinks about the career trajectory of U. S. Grant as more important than the drinking which did indeed lead to his early departure from a military career but which otherwise did not interfere with his talents. Let us use this alternative approach for a comparison of some American Presidents.
American Presidents who come to be regarded as heroic figures for the most part show their abilities early on in their careers. They have commanding presences and they are successful at what they do and people have a sense of them being comers. That is true whatever is the story offered of the arc of their lives: Lincoln born in a log cabin, Clinton and Obama rising from humble roots. Everyone who met Lincoln from early on knew he was quite a talker, and Clinton and Obama shot to the top early through the meritocracy of education, and Bush, Sr. and John Kennedy were youthful war heroes. Theodore Roosevelt made an early reputation as a contentious state representative and Franklin Roosevelt was a vote getter from the time of his first run for the New York State Assembly. Presidents who are non-heroic also show what they are from early on in that the habits of a lifetime come early. Bush, Jr. lived off his name until he became President and then made a mess of it when he tried to dispense with his father’s advice. Trump was an unruly student who had to be sent off to military school and never found it necessary to become mentally disciplined, even had he had the capacity to become so.
Presidents who have been in the military may take a longer time to find themselves. Dwight Eisenhower did not impress until, in mid-career, he did very well at the General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth. Despite his training as a nuclear submariner, Jimmy Carter was just a peanut farmer until he became Governor of Georgia. Harry Truman never accomplished much until his popularity as a former World War I artillery captain got him nominated to be a Missouri county judge, which means a county commissioner. As Chernow makes clear, Grant also was constantly underrated, even though people found him an awful good talker for someone who was an overage clerk in his father’s grocery store, and Grant, along with some very few other people (including his wife), seemed to have a sense of his abilities, however much his career had been sidetracked by drink and a series of failures at becoming a businessman and farmer. Chernow shows just how bleak his prospects were, forced to take from his father and father-in-law just to make ends meet, his father-in-law even asking Grant’s wife and children to stay with her parents until Grant did something with his life, which is reminiscent of Harry and Bess Truman forced to live with Bess’ mother because they could not afford a place of their own. Like Julia Grant’s father, Madge Wallace had not approved of the marriage and delayed it as long as she could.
Grant had been so shaken by his many years of failure as that had been followed up by his meteoric rise to national prominence as a result of his victories at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, that he thought his career might be over again when General Hallack, his superior, temporarily shelved him, only to be countermanded by Lincoln, who was not about to let this most successful of his generals linger without a command. Grant was shortly back in command of a gigantic army and engaged in the very costly battle of Shiloh which warned him and the nation that the Civil War was going to be a war of attrition.
It is difficult to make Grant into much of a hero as president even though Grant did have some heroic characteristics, such as a clear understanding of how important it was to get the defeated Southerners to accept ex-slaves into their newly to be formed society, and the mastery of detail and vigor of character that goes into heroes. What Grant did not have was the ability to get things done outside the military sphere because of his poor judgment about the people who he had surround him. They did not have his priorities as their highest priorities. Grant had been a hero in war but did not have the qualities, other than honor and a good heart, that would serve to make him a good President, a position he was thrust into because of the failures of Andrew Johnson. Even his closest aide, General Rawlins, who had hidden Grant’s drinking sprees as best he could, thought Grant a great man at leading troops, but that he did not have it in him to be a politician. He did not discourage Grant from making his run at the Presidency, just as George H. W. Bush did not, as far as we know, discourage his son from seeking the Presidency, nor anyone in the Trump family put down their foot to say that his Presidential ambitions were nonsense. Maybe no one in Trump’s family was close enough to say that to him, or maybe they were all too craven to take on the task. It might have taken a great President to make good on Radical Reconstruction and even Lincoln might not have been able to pull it off, given that the South began its total resistance to becoming integrated into Northern prosperity with race riots and legal codes to keep freedmen down right after the war ended, and managed to maintain its caste society for another hundred years. Grant was certainly overwhelmed by the task and so his trajectory as hero is as the general who won the Civil War but not the politician who won the peace. Grant was not able, during the course of his two terms, to resolve the Indian problem, which he wanted to do by settling them on reservations, nor was he able to carry out imperialist ambitions in Santo Domingo and Cuba, nor, most important, was he able to help shape a way to deal with the rise of big business. He talked a good game, but that is all it was.
The long and the short of it is that, with the exception of George Washington, people who have spent their earlier careers in the military do not make very good presidents. That is because while they may be very good at delegating authority or mastering the topography of a battle site, they have to trust to their subordinates to carry out the plans they are trying to get done. As Harry Truman said of his successor, Eisenhower will give orders, and then they will not be carried out. Where Truman had been a decisive politician, with twenty years in elected office, Eisenhower muddled through his Presidency by delegating both domestic and foreign affairs to his cabinet, which meant that the United States got what was good for General Motors, which was the interstate highway system rather than a system of bullet trains, and the military was left depleted, able to embark only on a nuclear war, which would not have been a very good idea. The successful Presidents are, like Truman, professional politicians. That was the case with Lincoln, with FDR, with TR, with LBJ, with Obama. They are used to being patient with the legislative process and good at manipulating it, and also good at being free enough in their decision making to do the unexpected, like relieve generals, or always have a new program to try, or make a speech to rally the public to a new departure. They know how to keep moving. I hope that, in 2020, both parties nominate professional politicians because that will make it more likely that the nation will be in responsible hands.
Heroism comes in so many very different forms that it seems a particular characteristic of the person. Some writers see the world, as Ernest Hemingway did; others stay close to home, like Faulkner. Some outlive their fame, like Wilkie Collins; some, like John Updike, manage to be famous throughout their writing lives. Even if famous, people live their own lives, express or fail to express their own spirits. Very different people are up on Mount Rushmore. And so it is not surprising that Grant has a peculiar legacy as a hero. The subject of adulation in his time, he has not sustained that reputation and Chernow does not really attempt to rehabilitate him, despite what some reviewers of his book have said. Grant was overwhelmed by challenges outside his wheelhouse and rather than being a shooting star was a man of dignity promoted beyond his abilities.