Monday, May 16, 2011
Obama as Grant
This past weekend's "Week in Review" section of the NYT included Peter Baker's essay entitled Comparisons in Chief. Mr. Baker muses over the comparisons, flattering and un-, of Barack Obama, the forty-fourth POTUS, with predecessors such as John F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and the Bushes (George H.W. and George W.):
What makes us so eager to find historical parallels for Mr. Obama? Why do we take one president and try to fit him into the mold of another? Maybe it is because more than halfway through his term, we just cannot agree on who Mr. Obama really is. Or maybe it is the same public fascination with historical personalities that lately has filled best-seller lists with presidential biographies. Or maybe it is just a surplus of shallow punditry in an era with endless hours of airtime and Internet space to fill.
“Sometimes I think the only president we haven’t been compared to is Franklin Pierce,” said Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director. “But I am not ruling out the possibility of that comparison sometime in the next couple of years.”
Mr. Pfeiffer said he assumes these comparisons come up because many political writers were history majors. Naturally, he, too, has read many books on presidents. “The key,” he said, “is studying the similarities and differences and understanding that history is informative but not determinative.”
Mark K. Updegrove, director of the Johnson presidential library, points to the proliferation of news media. “In my view,” he said, “pundits often make comparisons to previous presidents because it allows them to sound authoritative without putting forth a great deal of thought.” He added that he has been among those who have made such comparisons.
After Mr. Baker's quotes about pundits who want to sound authoritative or were history majors, however, I could not help but shake my head when I read his concluding lines (emphasis mine):
In the end, said Michael Beschloss, the presidential historian, our views matter less than Mr. Obama’s: “The real key is, in his heart, which historical figures does Obama himself really find himself looking to most often for inspiration and guidance?” Usually, he added, we do not find out until after a president leaves office and historians can read his records or memoirs.
So maybe then, Mr. Obama will actually be another Ulysses S. Grant, who wrote the most celebrated presidential memoir of all time. Remember, you read it here first.
Mr. Baker is correct that U.S. Grant's memoirs have been celebrated, and justly so. I recommend them to anyone interested in U.S. history, and they're available in full-text, free, online.
Anyone who's actually read them, however, would surely recall the careful, disciplined organizational style of Grant's memoirs. His chapter titles, for example, are verbose by modern standards, but they comprehensively summarize the contents of each chapter. The next-to-last one, Chapter 70, was entitled: "The End of the War — The March to Washington — One of Lincoln’s Anecdotes — Grand Review at Washington — Characteristics of Lincoln and Stanton — Estimate of the Different Corps Commanders." Grant's memoirs basically stop at the end of the Civil War. And even in his final chapter, entitled simply "Conclusion," Grant said nothing of his two terms as president.
Grant's memoir, in short, was not a presidential memoir, but a commanding general's. Given the enormous disparity between history's concensus verdict on Grant as a commanding general (top-tier) and as a president (bottom of the barrel), that's a rather significant fact.
Depending on whether you credit his second book as a memoir or just campaign flackery (and I lean toward the latter), Obama's already written either one or two memoirs of his own pre-presidential days. And if Mr. Baker thinks that Barack Obama's accomplishments as a community organizer, part-time lawyer, part-time seminar teacher, and part-time state legislator compare in any respect to Grant winning the Civil War — or even that Obama writes as well as Grant did — then Mr. Baker's punditry is very silly and shallow indeed.
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(1) Mark L made the following comment | May 16, 2011 6:20:05 PM | Permalink
And even in his final chapter, entitled simply "Conclusion," Grant said nothing of his two terms as president.
Well, that might end up being another parallel between the two Presidents. Grant in his memoirs did not write about his term as President. Neither has Obama (or Obama's ghostwriters) in Obama's existing memoirs.
If he is smart, when Obama is at the stage of his life where Grant was when Grant wrote "Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant" will emulate Grant and stick to his pre-Presidential career. It is bound to be more illustrious than Obama's period as President.
(2) Gregory Koster made the following comment | May 16, 2011 10:52:23 PM | Permalink
Dear Mr. Dyer: Let's add a bit more history:
Grant was driven to writing his Civil War memoirs because he had lost all his money to his crooked investment banking partner, Ferdinand Ward. As Mencken put it about this episode: If Grant had been anyone else but Grant, he would have gone to trial.
So Grant was broke, and his family was about to be destitute. Thus, the memoirs, with Mark Twain helping as publisher. Grant wrote them in a race with the cancer that was to kill him, finishing the memoirs less than two weeks before he died. Try to imagine The One showing anything close to that energy and discipline.
It's also worth noting that Grant was a flat failure in any career he tried up to the Civil War. Unlike The One, he didn't fail upward, and wasn't notably ruthless. Grant's ruthlessness needed a literal, not liberal, battlefield to emerge on. Finally, it's worth noting that modern liberal bigotry is seeking to move Grant up the ladder of Presidential achievement, on the grounds that he didn't believe that the only good Indian was a dead one in the manner of the young Theodore Roosevelt. William McFeely won a Pulitzer Prize for starting this effort. McFeely at least worked at his effort, and has a fine style. Baker's sodden imbecility is just the latest in 50 years of liberal bigotry, groveling to quacks on one hand, revising history to beat the despised middle classes of the country with the other.
(3) Mike Myers made the following comment | May 17, 2011 12:45:26 AM | Permalink
Grant's great strength as a general in the field was his ability to write clear, concise orders. There was no confusion as to what Grant wanted.
Obama can't order a hamburger without multiple dependent and conflicting clauses. Poor hamburger flipper has a hard time figuring out what this doofus is asking for.
Mr. Koster (#2) & Mr. Myers (#3): You're both right about Grant (and Obama). And re Mr. Myers' point about Grant's orders, ironically, a failure to give clear and decisive orders was sometimes one of Robert E. Lee's principal weaknesses — as it was, to his and his command's great rue, at Gettysburg (before Grant came East). Lee's courtly regard for his near-subordinates sometimes led him to assume that they'd "understand" the degree of independent discretion he was expecting of them in a particular situation. If they'd not guessed wrong, Lee would have had his cavalry and Pickett might never have made his charge.
(5) stan made the following comment | May 17, 2011 8:56:06 AM | Permalink
At least Grant actually wrote his book.
Jack Cashill and Christopher Andersen have pretty convincing evidence that Ayers wrote BO's.
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