WASHINGTON — The Democratic convention is the beginning of Bill Clinton's denouement. Predicting his next career gambit is a national parlor game: Boy-wonder governor and vanguard boomer president, he'll ascend to global eminence with decades of productive years ahead.
Just what does a 54-year-old, much-maligned yet much-adored man of action do as an ex-president? Remarkably, Americans asked the same question in 1877, when a different 54-year-old ex-chief executive faced the same situation: Ulysses S. Grant.
Grant's stuffy $50-bill-visage belies the fact that he was, upon leaving the presidency in 1877, a man in his prime, dominating the political landscape of his day as surely as Clinton does today's. Both were venerated by half the population and maligned by the other half for dramatic bursts of bad judgment; and both had no moorings in private life to return to.
Does Grant's career as an emeritus offer any clues as to what Clinton should do? Grant did four things as an ex-president, each a Clinton option: he traveled the world, ran for office again, became a businessman, and wrote his famous "Memoirs."
Grant lived in the White House longer than any place save his boyhood home. Absent a calling or a place to go, he accepted a newspaper's invitation to travel the world in exchange for the right to report on the tour. So he did, for two years, from Europe to the Middle East and Asia, then San Francisco and triumphantly crossing the US. Kings and commoners alike flocked to receive the American hero. He enjoyed the trip, happy to get out of earshot of domestic carpers. Can Clinton feel differently? Today, speaker fees replace the indulgences of a newspaper sponsor, but for Clinton, the trip's a must.
Grant returned home in 1879 to find his absence had made the public's heart grow fonder of him. An unprecedented third presidential term, complete with house and paycheck, beckoned. But a deadlocked 1880 Republican convention nominated James Garfield when Grant couldn't turn his first-ballot lead into a majority. The loss permanently diminished him.
"Senator" Bill Clinton, take a note.
Grant then set out in a new direction: to be rich. Always fascinated by men of means, he'd now be one. He was brought into his son's partnership with a financial lion named Ferdinand Ward, and became a Joe Louis-style greeter for investors who greedily bought Ward's securities. But Ward was running a bunco scheme and, when his pyramid collapsed, Grant was penniless. He sadly borrowed $150,000 from William Vanderbilt to pay creditors, forfeiting his medals and honors as collateral.
Clinton shows a similar fascination: Instead of Gould, Fisk, and Vanderbilt, the names are Geffen, Diller, and Riady. And for all his ability, he risks becoming a greeter.
Grant turned his attention to writing. His famous note to Confederate commander Buckner inside Fort Donelson, made "unconditional surrender" a household word. A few magazine articles proved the public's voracious appetite for Grant's recollections, and with publisher Mark Twain's help, he was soon in the business of providing them.
No sooner had Grant begun the task than he fell ill, finishing the manuscript a few days before his death. His "Memoirs" is one of the great works of American literature. "Memoirs" isn't an exercise in dramatic self-revelation: He passes over his disappointing presidency, for example. But the book has a direct, focused style that conveys candor and conviction. More than any other part of Grant's valedictory, it's a model for Clinton.
Other presidents left the White House with a greater sense of closure than Clinton will. He has the chance to create that closure when he inevitably provides us with his story. Military battles aside, Grant's greatest triumph was "Memoirs": It formed history's memory of him. Political battles aside, we may similarly end up remembering Clinton by the way he tells us his story.
*Ev Ehrlich, former undersecretary of Commerce, is author of the new novel 'Grant Speaks' (Warner Books).
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society