Sunday, May 26, 2013

Presidential Character: Week Eighteen, Good Men Don't Always Make Good Presidents

You would think - or you would want - a good man to serve as our nation's leader.  But 'good' is a broad term: it covers such concepts as decent, friendly, amenable, just; it also covers such concepts as capable, competent, effective which may require skills that the earlier concepts cannot perform.

Some of our nation's best Presidents had to them a level of ruthlessness.  Obviously they all had some ambition - even the Passive-Negative who runs for the office out of a sense of obligation has a competitive urge to win - to achieve the office.  And in office even our 'good' Presidents wrestled on the political battleground against their enemies, winning with more than a little finesse and a lot of trickery.  These are traits - ambition, deceit - that are not often described as 'good' and yet they get the job done.

The inverse is just as sad: some of our nation's worst Presidents were on a personal level and even at a profession level 'good' in terms of being decent, honorable men.  They were just lousy at politics; and worse, such as the case of Ulysses Simpson Grant our 18th President, they were horrifically inept at choosing their political allies.

Grant rose from obscurity through an appointment to West Point working towards a career in the military.  He wasn't the best graduate out of the Army academy but did well making friends.  Grant served with distinction during the Mexican-American War (although a higher-ranking Robert E. Lee once berated him for inappropriate attire, one of Grant's little quirks), but couldn't handle working the frontier separated from his wife and family and fell into depression and the drink.  Drummed out, he tried farming but failed, tried business but failed, ended up by May 1860 working as a clerk in his younger brothers' shop in Galena, Illinois.  He was one of those men whose heart was good but just couldn't find a place in the world.

When the Civil War began he was the only one in his community with a West Point background, which quickly made him the only qualified man to organize the local volunteers and offer up his services to the governor's office.  He promptly got placed in charge of an unruly regiment he drilled into shape, and then led that regiment into a handful of skirmishes on the Western theater of war that resulted in victories and for him higher promotions.

His unexpectedly decisive victories at Forts Henry and Donelson - which essentially secured most of western Tennessee for the Union and key defensive points on the rivers needed to travel into Confederate states - made Grant a national hero.  Where the war was floundering in Virginia, Grant was securing victories along the Mississippi River (the key to the Anaconda Plan that eventually won the war for the Union).  Even the setback of Shiloh - a surprise Confederate attack that turned from debacle to bloodied victory for Grant's forces over a two-day battle - was temporary.  Once other generals proved incapable compared to what Grant could do - well-organized, sustained attacks under confident conditions; well-organized stubborn defensives that Grant could turn into a battlefield win - he was back in charge with even more armies at his command.

His masterwork of the Vicksburg campaign - cutting himself off from direct supplies, marching through enemy territory with drive unmatched by his Confederate opponents, laying siege on the last key stronghold of Vicksburg to secure the whole length of the Mississippi River for Union forces - led to Grant getting placed in charge of the whole U.S. armed force.  He spent some time finishing up some work on the Western theater - to ensure his trusted colleague Sherman had a strong position from which to finish the job there - before focusing his attention on the Virginia theater, where general after general failed to capture General Lee's forces or at least drive the Confederates out of their own capitol in Richmond.

Grant succeeded against Lee from 1864 onward where the earlier generals failed because of one thing: Grant did not treat a battlefield loss like a disaster.  Confident that he had the men and resources, Grant did not retreat the second Lee's forces bloodied his: while this led to bloodier battlefields, it meant Lee could not enjoy a moment of rest or time to restock on men and material.  Grant also saw a bigger picture: as long as he tied down Lee's army in Virginia, Sherman's forces in Tennessee were free to march into Georgia... and then through Georgia in a move that shredded even more of the South's infrastructure and ability to support their own war efforts.  It was messy but it got the job done: by March 1865 Grant had stretched Lee's defenses at Petersburg to where a frontal assault on April 2nd broke Lee's entire army.  Richmond had to be abandoned.  Two weeks later Lee surrendered to Grant.

Grant ended the war a national hero.  He served as capably as possible as head of the armies during the Johnson administration - even serving as interim Secretary of War during the dust-up involving Stanton - before going on to be the Republican candidate for President in 1868 and winning handily over a Democratic Party still demoralized by the Civil War.

And sad to say for Grant and for the nation it was all downhill from there.  There's a reason why before Watergate Grant's tenure was considered the most scandalous in American history.

Grant's Cabinet appointments - some of them personal acquaintances from his days in Galena - were either driven from office for corruption or conflict-of-interest charges within three months.  Pro-business allies of the Republican Party dealt with government cronies all through the executive and legislative offices to get insider information, with those cronies enjoying kickbacks and favors.  Read up on the Union Pacific Railroad.  Look up Whiskey Ring.  Most damaging was how Grant's brother-in-law got involved with Jay Gould's attempt to corner the gold market.  It crashed the economy, and a lot of people were ruined by it.

Grant's history and habits make a decent case for his having a Passive-Positive character.  Just his getting enrolled at West Point alone makes the case: when a clerical error had his name changed from Hiram Ulysses to Ulysses Simpson (Simpson being his mother's maiden name), Grant didn't correct the error and lived with it (another such person was Eisenhower).  Even more so, his classmates nicknamed him "Uncle Sam" from his new U.S. initials... and later more favorably called him just "Sam".  And he didn't mind one whit what his friends called him.

This is Compliant behavior: someone who seeks friendship and to be loved.  But the chart on the four types shows a serious negative trait about this behavior: Pass-Pos Presidents can be easily manipulated.

Grant presided over a time when "anything goes" was the motto of business.  Government contracts to be had for the asking: a stock market unregulated and ripe for abuse.  The Spoils System of the Democrats carried over to the Republicans who relished in the power and money and none of the responsibility.  The urban legend was that Grant was so swamped at the Willard Hotel lobby (Grant liked to go there to get a whiskey and cigar) with job-seekers that he took to calling them "lobbyists" (actually, the word origin came from British Parliament of the 1600s).

Grant himself personally didn't profit from any of these dealings - in fact post-administration he got burned by a couple of con artists that left his family broke on the eve of his finding out he had inoperable cancer - but he was reacting more to the scandals than doing anything to stop them (another Pass-Pos trait).  It didn't help that he had a political party neck-deep in all that corruption, sharing power with a Congress that viewed him as a puppet, and with an opposition party in the Democrats so currently unpopular that the voters had nowhere to go to vote the crooks out.  It was a perfect storm of corrupt politics.

Worse, Grant's truest accomplishments in office - his handling of Reconstruction in the South and doing his best to ensure civil rights for freed Blacks - were not free of the corruption.  Attempts to get Blacks started on their own farms were twisted into land deals to others: the schools and colleges the Freedmen's Bureau opened across the South to help former slaves learn much-needed educations were left under-funded.  His greatest success - sending the army out against the Klan - wasn't consistently applied: by 1875 as the corruption of his administration pretty much fatigued the whole nation, Grant wasn't getting any pressure to stop a wave of violence engulfing Mississippi.  By 1877 the North did not care for civil rights anymore: the long-term ramifications of giving up on Reconstruction did not cross their minds... and we all got stuck with Jim Crow for 100 years while the Deep South - for Whites and Blacks - regressed into a backwater.

Grant's Presidential legacy remains a mess.  There is no excuse for it.  But what made it worse was the revisionist pro-Confederacy historians who wrote our nation's histories and biographies for the century following his term of office.  The saying is that "history is written by the winners" but the Lost Cause supporters - the losers - remain a clear exception to that: and in order to make their personal heroes - the slave-owning oligarchs, the Jefferson Davises, the post-war Klansmen - into saints those historians tarnished Grant's reputation - as a drunkard, as a butcher, as a corrupt politician - far lower than it deserved.

In that time, we as a nation needed a great President.  We instead got a good man... who just happened to be a terrible President.  'Tis the pity.  Grant deserves a better legacy.  Maybe if more people read his memoirs: it is considered, then and now, one of the best military and personal autobiographies ever wrote.  Project Gutenberg ebook link here.

Next Week: Bush the Lesser wasn't even the first President to win office by just one vote.  It was this guy...

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