The one truly great – and truly humble – presidential memoir

Ulysses S. Grant may not be remembered as our best president, but his memoir is often cited as the best of all presidential writings.

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    Grant's presidential memoir is a standout because of its honesty. Grant takes the blame for military setbacks in several cases and also admits that he may sometimes have judged subordinates unfairly.
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Edith Piaf, eat your heart out.

Dick Cheney isn't haunted by bad choices, at least not his own. The same goes for George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter. Even Richard Nixon was hard pressed to find ways he screwed up.

How do we know? Their memoirs – including Cheney's new one – say so. But when it comes to books by men who lived in the White House (and the guy in the previous sentence who acted like he did), one president's memoirs stand apart because of their humility. In fact, many historians consider the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant to be the best of the bunch.

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Yes, President Grant, the one with the alleged drinking problem. The one who once had a rock-bottom reputation among historians. And, of course, the one with the tomb. (No, his name is not the answer to the "Who's Buried In Grant's Tomb?" riddle. It's a trick question: He's technically entombed. Now you know!)

This week, I talked to Grant biographer Brooks D. Simpson, a professor at Arizona State University, to find out what makes this president's memoirs so memorable.

Q: Why do Grant's memoirs stand apart?

A: He seems somewhat more humble than most other presidential memoirs. He does mention that he regrets military actions which didn't prove to be successful, and he admits there were some mistakes.

Q: What's an example of his humility?

A: The Union launched an attack at Cold Harbor in June 1864, and it was a tremendous military disaster. Grant said, "I regret having done it, I regret having ordered those assaults." Even though he could have finger-pointed at other people, he chose not to.

He takes the blame for a military setback in several cases, and when he feels he judged a subordinate unfairly and that subordinate outperformed, he admits that shortcoming.

He's also one to say, "If I'd known then what I knew later, I would have done this differently." He was willing to second-guess himself.

Q: What did he write about warfare?

A: He was very low-key and unassuming at moments of triumph. His description of what happened at Appomattox [where General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Grant] shows consideration for Lee's feelings. It's not gloating at all.

There are points when he gives rather vivid descriptions about what's going on around him. He wasn't above writing about how horrible a battlefield looked, and he did it in restrained prose.

He talks about how you could go across the field at Shiloh without ever not stepping across a human body. That's a very vivid image of how much carnage there was.

Q: Was that an unusual thing to describe?

Generals tend to not want to reflect the horrors of the battles for which they themselves are at least partly responsible.

Q. How does his memoir stack up to those of other presidents?

A: He could be a little prickly and a little defensive, but on the whole, compared to what else is out there, he could also be reasonably humble.

Except for very few paragraphs, there isn't much about his presidency. And it's the only presidential memoir that seems to have stood as a piece of literature. People read it, and they still read it. I heard a lot about the Clinton and Bush memoirs, but I don't know that many people who read them.

Q: Do other other presidential memoirs have value?

A: Theodore Roosevelt's is candid, and Clinton's is valuable in a different way because there's such a mass of information. You know that he wrote it because it's not written particularly well. But he has all the details: This week I did this, the following week I did that.

As a biographer, you find out things from memoirs, but they're not necessarily the things the writer would have wanted you to find out. Clinton's autobiography was of someone who was so detail-oriented that he wouldn't pull things out into larger themes.

Q: Grant's presidential administration suffered from major corruption problems. What is his reputation today as a president?

A: He's in the middle of the pack, middling, and that's fair. He was a well-intentioned guy, better than anyone else who was available, and found a set of problems he couldn't handle. He did the best he could.

In his last annual message, he talks about mistakes had been made during his administration. No president tends to admit at the end that he made a whole bunch of mistakes.

Q: Except him?

A: That's right. That makes him unique.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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