George W. Bush has promise as a verb, as an action leader. I'm afraid he's also got noun tendencies, which may be reflected, for example, in the design of his slow-acting, time-release tax cut. The plan, in its premeditation, looks something like McClellan after Antietam, who dawdled for six weeks before crossing the Potomac, and therefore let Lee slip away, as this economy might.
If I could place a book upon the President's night table, it would be "Grant" (Simon & Schuster), a splendid new biography by the historian and political scientist Jean Edward Smith. This will be the definitive life of Grant, a 781-page reinterpretation of that cigar stub of a man whose career became a classic sermon on America's fraternal twins, greatness and failure.
Are there affinities between Grant and George W. Bush, beyond their mutual sometime misadventures with the bottle, and the fact that both have been seriously underestimated now and then?
It's perhaps a farfetched and unnecessary comparison, which becomes all the more fanciful when you look at the disparity of their accomplishments. By the time Grant was Bush's age, he had led the Union armies in a terrible war and earned immortality as one of history's great generals. There's also the matter of style. Consider their very different relationships with the English language. Grant used words (in his written orders in the field, in his magnificent memoirs) with clarity and precision. Bush sometimes seems pre-verbal. Grant was withdrawn, seedy, taciturn, socially awkward. For Bush, former head of cheerleaders, gregariousness and wisecracking charm are tools of leadership.
Still, no leader who is relentlessly sneered at by intellectuals can be all bad. Henry Adams thought Grant was a vulgar idiot. There's been much hilarity down the generations over Grant's remark that Venice would be a lovely city if only it could be drained. Bush got similar Mandarin yucks all through the campaign. (My favorite was: "I know how hard it is to put food on your family.")
Both Grant and Bush had their periods of drift and failure. Grant resigned his Army commission, apparently because of an incident with drink, and for a time sold firewood on the streets of St. Louis in order to support his family. Bush also spent a long time as a grown man going nowhere.
The verdict on Bush lies in the future. About Grant, Jean Edward Smith begs to differ with conventional history. He judges that much of our image of Grant is wrong. History portrays Grant as a brutal widow-maker whose formula for victory consisted of running up an immense butcher's bill. Not so, says Smith. Grant's casualty ratio was actually lower than Lee's; furthermore, "his strategic mastery of the Confederate army was unique among Union generals. Grant made victory look easy."
History has written off Grant as one of the worst presidents. Smith believes he was a good deal better than you think. Among other things, "He fought for black equality long after his countrymen tired of 'the Negro question.'"
Smith sees in Grant's up-down-up-down life (promising young officer of the Mexican war, civilian failure, the Civil War's military master, then an apparently failed president) a common thread of "strength of character an indomitable will that never flagged in the face of adversity... a deep primal force that sustained him through defeat and humiliation."
The arts and needs of politics and war are very different. But vision counts in both. Grant, says Smith, "saw his goals clearly and moved toward them relentlessly." In that sense, I suppose Grant was, in a curious way, more like Ronald Reagan than like George W. Bush.
But in my mind, some inner affinity links Grant and Bush. I seem to glimpse it in, for example, their shared contempt for pomp and eloquence, and in what I sense to be plain but formidable inner resources. Those who call Bush "Shrub" sound to me like the people who did not have a clue about Grant in 1862 and thought McClellan was the hero of the age.
An earlier biographer remarked that the long historical denigration of Ulysses Grant began with the fact that Grant's enemies wrote better than his friends. Is the same thing true about Bush?