Ulysses S. Grant
The Unlikely Hero
By Michael Korda
HarperCollins/Atlas, 176 pages, $19.95
The author of Ulysses S. Grant makes no bones about his admiration. He categorizes Grant as "an authentic genius as well as a brilliant writer -- not just an American hero but possibly the American hero."
Given the bias with which Michael Korda, the editor in chief of Simon & Schuster and the author of 14 books, one has to question the validity of his conclusions about the career of the two-time President.
Korda does admit that the unbending resolve Grant manifested as a military man "often impeded him as president, businessman and ordinary citizen."
He cites Grant's devotion to his wife and his compassion toward animals as an indication of the "greatness of the great military man." There are many, including this reviewer, who would question those attributes as an exemplification of his leadership abilities on the battlefield and later in the White House.
Korda tries to make the case for a historical reevaluation of Grant, whom most have denigrated. He says Grant was a hero without arrogance -- a warrior who excelled at fighting and hated what he was doing -- a hero only America could have produced."
Grant, most analysts today agree, was one of America's outstanding generals but one of our weakest presidents. Korda does not spend much time on Grant's failures as president. However, he is honest enough to note that Grant was unable to "distinguish cheats, sharpers, thieves and con artists from honest men. Grant was a total innocent when it came to anything involving money -- and he found it difficult to detect dishonesty in others. He often managed to ignore proof of wrongdoing even when it was brought to him."
Again I have to praise the author's honest appraisal of Grant's time as president when he reports that, "A pattern of grift and graft ran through the Grant administration, even though the president was one of the few major figures not to profit from it, he nevertheless seemed unable to do anything to stop it, and he was unwilling to listen to evidence against those he liked or trusted."
Offsetting these faults, writes Korda, was Grant's ability to exert a calming influence on a country that had only recently emerged from a civil war, and that he sought peace between north and south and between the United States and the rest of the world.
One has to conclude from a reading of this slim biography that a fine or even outstanding commander on the field of military endeavor does not necessarily translate to an outstanding president. Even a hero worshipper such as Korda could not make the case for the transfer of Grant's talents from military endeavor to the White House.
Murray B. Light is the former editor of The Buffalo News.