Monday, March 12, 2018

Book Review: "Grant" by Ron Chernow

It’s a great book. Some thoughts…

1. Grant’s story is pretty close to a real rags-to-riches story, and watching his climb is such fun. He has a pretty average adolescence. He gets lucky when his father (who had a bit of wealth and a few connections) gets him into West Point. He shows potential in the Mexican-American War, but after the war he begins his fall. Loneliness and alcoholism get to him and he loses his army position. Money runs low, and there he is at his rockbottom, peddling firewood to support his young family. The Civil War begins and we watch him achieve a stunning sequence of victories that vault him to the position of top general. The presidency is right around the corner.

Don’t so many of us long for a turn of events that will supercharge our lives with special meaning and purpose? Grant was fairly useless in normal life. He had no skills for oratory, he was a terrible speculator, and he showed little ambition for business. His years between the Mexican-American War and the Civil War is a period of focuslessness and failure.

It isn’t until the war begins when everything clicks into place for Grant. He finally has an opportunity to activate all of his rare qualities and talents: his horsemanship, his singleminded drive, his confident and fearless demeanor, his military creativity, his high-altitude strategic perspective on a massive multi-front war, his astute political gifts, his clear writing style, and his emotional intelligence. These gifts were useless in his previous life, but they were just what the country needed in its darkest hour.

This is the plot for so many of our favorite characters—Neo from The Matrix, Frodo from Lord of the Rings, basically any coming-of-age superhero movie. This is a story of having some hidden talent and energy that is just waiting to be brought to life. For those of us who find ourselves often discontent with ordinary life, or who think they've been born in the wrong century, it’s a supremely compelling fantasy.

2. Grant is an easy man to love. He makes some mistakes (such as when he called for all Jewish people be removed from his military region), but he always overcomes his prejudices and atones for his sins. (Later, he becomes a great friend to the Jewish community.) He is gentle with Native Americans, a friend to the women’s suffrage movement, and he is deeply, deeply concerned about the welfare of the newly freed slaves. Morally and ethically, he was a great president then, and he would be a great president today.

The book reminded me of the terror that the freed slaves endured immediately after the war. The KKK formed and what followed was a shocking spree of genocide and murders, not to mention voter repression. I had no idea how bad it was.

Grant is remembered as one of the worst presidents, and Chernow doesn’t hide the fact that Grant, as president, made mistakes, namely by unwittingly surrounding himself with the corrupt and the incompetent. But Chernow takes care to remind us just how devoted Grant was to uplifting the freed slaves and controlling the murderous racism that wreaked havoc across the South. If Grant had more support, we may have been able to prevent the hundred years of Jim Crow that followed the Civil War.

3. We’d probably call Grant “emotionally unavailable” these days. Raising a boy to be like Grant would likely be frowned upon. This is a man so stoic he never shows his feelings, even when under gunfire. In his memoir, he never discusses serious family matters, many of his failures, or his alcoholism. Perhaps he was emotionally expressive behind closed doors with his wife and members of his military family, but you get the impression that he was, emotionally, a black box.

But here’s the paradoxical thing about Grant. He, like George Washington, was emotionally astute. When dealing with superiors or subordinates, he wrote to them with great care, avoiding doing any harm to fragile egos. We see this considerate manner in the gentle, conciliatory way he dealt with Robert E. Lee at Appomattox. Grant’s gentle hand, and his deft conciliatory gestures, helped bridge some major chasms between the North and South after the war. Grant’s example shows that we can both practice a disciplined stoicism and be emotionally thoughtful.

4. Grant was a liberal warrior. I've now read two giant Grant biographies, plus his mammoth memoir. I've read several books on John Brown, plus a couple on Lincoln. I love reading about the Civil War and about these men because, nowadays, to be liberal is to be soft, peaceful, and maybe even a pushover. That's how many liberals see themselves, and it's certainly how the right looks upon the left. Think about how Obama (whom I like and support) dealt with the news that the Russians were meddling in our election. He chose not to publicly say anything because he worried it might make him look biased. This is an honorable, but weak approach. Think about how Republicans gerrymander districts, pass anti-voting laws, prevent the president from making a Supreme Court nomination. Think about how Trump would have reacted to news of foreign meddling that might hurt his party's chances. I'm not saying I want my party to be unethical or unfair, but I want them to be tough.  

Back in the 1860s we see these Union men, driven by a compulsion to do what's right, become liberal warriors. They can be sensitive souls, like Grant and Lincoln. They can believe in snowflake things like justice and equality. But they can be determined, unflinching, and tough. They weren't afraid to assert that they indeed had the moral high ground. They weren't afraid to put an end to crimes of humanity with punishing force. And I suppose there's part of me that wants liberals to re-embrace this toughness, to not be such a bunch of softies. (To be clear, I'm in no way calling for actual violence.) 

5. One of Grant’s savviest political strategies was to place himself in luck's path. He never really sought the presidency, but he (consciously or unconsciously, it's hard to determine) placed himself in the right place at the right time. This way, he got what he wanted without sacrificing his honor or dignity, because back then it was still a bit unseemly to greedily seek higher office.

He did indeed want things. Like anyone, he enjoyed fame. He enjoyed power. He even ran for (and almost won) the nomination for a third term. Grant was a truly great man and as close to truly honorable as a man can get. But his honorable conduct wasn't just for honor's sake. Honor had political value back then, which I wish was the case today.

A deliberate and well-preened honor is, by its nature, artificial. But this well-preened and artificial honor is almost as laudable as real honest-to-goodness honor because it functions almost in the same way as honest-to-goodness honor. A code of honor, to which everyone feels obligated to adhere, forces people to live within tight moral boundaries. This slightly fake honor (which sort of functions as real honor) was actually how people acquired power.

Not all politicians or presidents had such honor, but it was valued enough to help win Grant the wide support he got. 
He was able to climb the military ladder and win the presidency because of the sterling character he so vigorously burnished. Politicians liked him and people voted for him because of this well-burnished character. 

I don't know how and when we lost this. Voters are attracted to Trump not because he's honorable, but because he's the exact opposite. We don't see any problem with people running for the presidency two or three years in advance, always boasting about their accomplishments and promising us the moon and more. I feel nostalgic for the times when leaders like Grant and Washington were compelled to pursue ambitions obliquely, and even remark about their unfitness for the job, as a symbol of their humility.

I do hope I get to see a president like Grant in my lifetime—someone who’s incapable of bombast, who’s humble, and who’s maybe even quiet. Can that feasibly happen in an age when politicians must take to the TV and Twitter to gain bigger and bigger followings? I suppose I wish for such a president less for the president than for the way it would reflect on our (hopefully improved) collective character.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Movie Review: "The Post"

The story of the Pentagon Papers is important and timely, but, as with many of Spielberg’s films of the last twenty years, I sense that Spielberg has creatively checked out.

My gripes: a cast of overused actors (like everyone, I love Tom Hanks, but he was an uninspired choice here); corny humor (the little girl and the lemonade stand); the artificial banter Spielberg has his characters engage in as they talk over themselves in a chaotic but really choreographed and phony way (Spielberg used to be a real pro at this—see the dinner table scenes in E.T., which seem scarily authentic).

Worst of all were the periodic moments of melodrama when some character steps into the light and makes a grand pronouncement about the nobility of journalism. I don’t disagree with the message, but the delivery is cheesy! You don’t see characters in All the President’s Men or Spotlight embarrassing themselves with such schmaltz—rather, those stories very subtly and very maturely say all they have to about the nobility of journalism.

Lastly, the movie lacks any sense of atmosphere or style. It just seemed hastily and formulaically thrown together, the theme timely enough and the actors prestigious enough to possibly help Spielberg pad his resume with more award nominations. Someone like a David Fincher could have lent a movie like this some seriousness and style.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Book Review: Stranger in the Woods

This is a fun, delightful read about a hermit who lived in the Maine woods for 27 years. The hermit, Christopher Knight, stole food, clothes, and books from nearby homeowners. According to Knight, Knight said one word ("hi") to one person (a random hiker) during those 27 years. He is eventually caught by a law enforcement official and imprisoned for his crimes. 

Knight is not a guy who we're going to revere or glorify the way we might revere other hermits, such as a Henry David Thoreau or a Chris McCandless. We look to hermits to tell us a bit about ourselves; to deliver a little sage wisdom from a mountaintop or a cabin in the woods.

Knight has his moments of wisdom, but he's neither sage nor lovable hero. Knight stole, drank, and ate a lot of sugar, which rotted his teeth. He's cranky and arrogant. He looks down on the rest of humanity, even though Knight admits that many of his deeds were far from pardonable. He can't be looked up to. But just because we can't look up to him doesn't mean we can't be intrigued by him. 

What made him take off into the woods? Was it something from Knight's past? These are questions that largely go unanswered, despite the author's great efforts to understand and connect with his subject. 

There were times I wanted the author to dissect Knight's brain a bit more: to help Knight articulate why he ventured out into the woods. The book seems to be something of an unsolved mystery. But if this is its weakness, it's also its strength: It gives you, as reader, space to interpret and wonder. And you can't place any blame on the author: he may have been dealing with the most reticent man alive, and the author made more than half a dozen (sometimes fruitless) trips from his home in Montana to Maine to get to the bottom of things.  

I found myself laughing out loud at the absurdity of Knight's predicament. (Wishing to be sent to solitary confinement when he's in jail, having to move into his mom's house as a middle-age man, brusquely rejecting the author's earnest overtures.) And yet there are moments when I felt deeply for Knight. I rooted for Knight to either find some happy compromise with society, or to just disappear again into the woods, where he belongs. 

Perhaps this book would have benefited from not being published so soon. We might have gotten more satisfying closure if the book was published a few years later. But I don't fault the author for seizing on a grand story in timely fashion. There will likely be a second edition, and maybe by the time the movie comes out (it needs to be adapted!) we'll have such an ending. 

Knight may have been an extremist in his quest for solitude, but he was not crazy. The book is a comedy, tragedy, and mystery, but also a paean to solitude, to the contentment that comes from being alone; to the simple joy of melting into the natural world. One of the underlying messages of the book, which I'm on board with, is that there's nothing crazy or wrong or even weird about wanting to be alone. For many, it's a luxury. For some, a necessity.