CHERNOW MEETS THE PRESS

April 30, 2019 at 4:45 am

Presidential historian and Alexander Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow met the press at Saturday’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner.  Tonight, we have a look at his best lines and his analysis of a past presidential administration wracked with scandal and corruption.

Aired on April 29, 2019.

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>> I CONFESS THAT I WAS
SURPRISED WHEN I RECEIVED THE
INVITATION TO SPEAK HERE
TONIGHT.
I MEAN, I KNEW THEY WEREN'T
APPROACHING ME AS AN
INTERNATIONAL SEX SYMBOL, RIGHT?
THEN OLIVIER TOLD ME THAT THEY
WANTED TO TRY BORING AT THIS
YEAR'S DINNER, AND I SAID -- I
SAID OH, I CAN DELIVER ON THAT
BIG-TIME.
>> A HISTORIAN, NOT A COMEDIAN
HEADLINED THIS WEEKEND'S WHITE
HOUSE CORRESPONDENTS DINNER.
RON CHERNOW HAS WRITTEN
CRITICALLY ACLIMBED BIOGRAPHIES
OF GEORGE WASHINGTON AND
HAMILTON WITH THE LATTER SERVING
AS THE INSPIRATION FOR
"HAMILTON."
IT TOOK SOME JABS AT PRESIDENT
TRUMP IN THE PROCESS.
>> AS YOU ALL KNOW, ON TUESDAY,
THE PRESIDENT LET IT BE KNOWN
THAT HE WANTED MEMBERS OF HIS
ADMINISTRATION TO STAY AWAY FROM
THIS DINNER.
AND AT FIRST I WAS PUZZLED BY
THIS NEWS, BUT THEN I LEARNED
THAT A RUMOR WAS CIRCULATING IN
WASHINGTON THAT I WAS GOING TO
BE READING ALLOW FROM THE
REDACTED PORTIONS OF THE MUELLER
REPORT, AND EVERYTHING WAS
EXPLAINED.
NOW, AS BEST I CAN TELL,
WASHINGTON COMMITTED ONLY ONE
MAJOR BLUNDER AS PRESIDENT.
HE FAILED TO PUT HIS NAME ON MT.
VERNON, AND THEREFORE BUNGLED AN
EARLY OPPORTUNITY AT BRANDING.
CLEARLY DEFICIENT IN THE ART OF
THE DEAL, THE POOR MAN HAD TO
SETTLE FOR THE LOWLY TITLE OF
FATHER OF HIS COUNTRY.
A VERY SAD STORY.
ALEXANDER HAMILTON, AN IMMIGRANT
WHO ARRIVED, THANK GOD, BEFORE
THE COUNTRY WAS FULL.
I FRANKLY -- I DON'T KNOW WHY
THEY LET THE GUY IN.
CLEARLY SOMEBODY HAD SLIPPED UP
AT THE SOUTHERN BORDER.
AS WE HEAD INTO ANOTHER ELECTION
SEASON, I WILL LEAVE YOU WITH
ONE FINAL GEM FROM TWAIN.
POLITICIANS IN DIAPERS MUST BE
CHANGED OFTEN AND FOR THE SAME
REASON.
GOOD NIGHT AND GOD BLESS
AMERICA.
>> CHERNOW'S MOST RECENT BOOK
EXAMINES THE LIFE OF OUR 18th
PRESIDENT, ULYSSES S. GRANT.
AS A YOUNG MAN, GRANT HAD BEEN A
MEDIOCRE CADET AT WEST POINT.
DURING THE MEXICAN WAR, HE
FOUGHT BRAVELY BUT WAS LATER
ASKED TO RESIGN FROM THE ARMY
BECAUSE OF HIS SEVERE DRINKING
PROBLEM.
IN CIVILIAN LIFE HE FAILED IN
MOST OF HIS ENDEAVORS.
YET DESPITE THIS LESS THAN
REMARKABLE PAST, HE BECAME BY
FAR THE GREATEST GENERAL
FIGHTING FOR THE UNION DURING
THE CIVIL WAR.
HE WENT ON TO SERVE TWO TERMS AS
PRESIDENT, BUT HIS PRESIDENCY
WAS MARRED BY SCANDAL AND
CORRUPTION.
I HAD THE OPPORTUNITY TO SPEAK
WITH RON CHERNOW SHORTLY AFTER
THE BIOGRAPHY'S PUBLICATION AND
BEGIN THE CONVERSATION BY ASKING
HIM TO SEPARATE GRANT FACT FROM
GRANT FICTION.
>> I REALLY TRIED TO RETIRE
THREE CHIEF MYTHS, ONE THAT HE
WAS A CRUDE AND BRUTAL GENERAL,
TWO, THAT HE SOMEHOW STUMBLED
THROUGH THE CIVIL WAR IN AN
ALCOHOLIC HAZE, AND THREE, THAT
HE EVER SAW A FAILED PRESIDENT
THAT WAS MARRED BY CORRUPTION
AND CRONYISM.
I DISCOVERED ALL THREE OF THOSE
STEREOTYPES WERE COMPLETELY
WRONG.
>> MANY OF HIS CLOSEST
ASSOCIATES WHO HAD BEEN WITH HIM
FOR YEARS, THEY THEMSELVES
DIDN'T UNDERSTAND THIS GUY, THIS
SEEMINGLY SO TYPICAL NORMAL GUY
COULD BE SO UNBELIEVABLY
SUCCESSFUL AT WAR.
YOU DISCOVERED THE SECRET?
>> WELL, YOU KNOW, IT'S
INTERESTING, BECAUSE QUITE
UNLIKE THE OTHER PEOPLE THAT
I'VE WRITTEN ABOUT, WHOM I FELT
WERE BUILT FOR SUCCESS, GRANT UP
UNTIL THE TIME OF THE CIVIL WAR
HAS SUFFERED ONE BUSINESS
FAILURE AFTER ANOTHER.
IN THE 1850s HE'S REDUCED TO
SELLING FIREWOOD ON STREET
CORNERS IN ST. LOUIS.
>> IT WAS PATHETIC.
I HAD NO IDEA HE HAD SUNK SO
LOW.
>> YEAH, HE ACTUALLY HAS TO PAWN
HIS WATCH ONE CHRISTMAS TO BUY
GIFTS FOR HIS FAMILY.
FINALLY, HE IS REDUCED AND IN
HIS LATE 30s.
HE IS REDUCED TO GOING TO HIS
FATHER WHO OWNED A LEATHER GOODS
STORE IN ILLINOIS AND BEGGING
FOR A JOB AS A CLERK.
HE TAKES A JOB AS A CLERK.
JUNIOR TO HIS TWO YOUNGER
BROTHERS.
YOU CAN IMAGINE WHAT A
HUMILIATION THAT IS.
AND THEN THIS MAN WHO FAILED AT
ONE THING AFTER ANOTHER, THE
CIVIL WAR BREAKS OUT.
TWO MONTHS LATER, HE IS A
COLONEL.
FOUR MONTHS LATER HE IS A
BRIGADIER GENERAL.
TEN MONTHS LATER HE IS A MAJOR
GENERAL.
AND THEN THIS FAILED LEATHER
GOODS STORE CLERK, BY THE END OF
THE WAR IS GENERAL IN CHIEF AND
HAS A MILLION SOLDIERS UNDER HIS
COMMAND.
>> IT'S UNBELIEVABLE.
DO YOU KNOW ANY OTHER FIGURE IN
AMERICAN HISTORY OR HISTORY
ANYWHERE.
>> NO.
>> THAT HAS SUCH A CONTRASTING
LIFE?
>> NO, NOT SUCH LOWS.
THERE IS A QUALITY TO THIS BOOK
THAT'S UNLIKE ANYTHING I'VE
WRITTEN BEFORE.
AND IT'S PATHOS.
IT'S THE STORY OF A
FUNDAMENTALLY DECENT
HARD-WORKING MAN WHO IS
REPEATEDLY DEFEATED BY
CIRCUMSTANCES.
AND IT TURNED OUT THAT HE
ACQUIRE KIND OF A NARROW SET OF
CONDITIONS FOR ALL OF THESE
WONDERFUL HIDDEN TRAITS.
>> WHAT WERE SOME OF THOSE
TRAITS?
>> YOU KNOW, AN AMAZING
PERSEVERANCE AND DARING.
I THINK BECAUSE HE HAD HAD SO
MUCH FAILURE BEFORE THE CIVIL
WAR, WHEN THE WAR BREAKS OUT, HE
HAS NOTHING TO DO AND EVERYTHING
TO GAIN, AND HE TAKES THESE
COLOSSAL RISKS THAT ALL OF THESE
WELL BORN GENERALS WOULD NOT.
>> LET'S TALK ABOUT THE
COMPARISON OF GRANT AND LEE.
>> WELL, THIS IS VERY, VERY
INTERESTING, BECAUSE ULYSSES S.
GRANT CAPTURE AT LEAST
CONFEDERATE ARMIES DUR, FORT
DONALDSON, VICKSBURG AND ROBERT
E. LEE'S ARMY AT APPOMATTOX
COURTHOUSE.
ROBERT E. LEE NEVER CAPTURED A
SINGLE UNION ARMY.
SO WHY SHOULD LEE BE CONSIDERED
THE GREATER GENERAL?
ALL THESE PEOPLE WHO SAY WELL,
IT WAS SIMPLY THE POPULATION OF
THE NORTH WAS LARGER, IT WAS THE
MANUFACTURING POWER OF THE
NORTH.
BEFORE GRANT FACES OFF AGAINST
LEE IN LEE IN 1864, THERE HAVE
BEEN SIX GENERALS WHO TRIED TO
DEFEAT LEE, ALL OF WHOM FAILED
WITH THE SAME ADVANTAGES OF
MANPOWER AND THE MATERIEL THAT
GRANT HAD.
GRANT WAS A DAZZLING STRATEGIST.
>> AND TALKING ABOUT THAT, GRANT
BELIEVED WITH LINCOLN THAT THE
PROPER PATH TO END THE WAR OR
AFTER THE WAR WAS TO BE
MAGNANIMOUS WITH THE
CONFEDERACY.
>> RIGHT.
>> INCLUDING THE TOP LEAD
MILITARY LEADERS, WHICH IS WHY
HE WAS SO GENEROUS TO LEE AT
APPOMATTOX.
BUT AS HISTORY PROVED, THAT WAS
INCOMPATIBLE WITH CREATING A
SOUTH, WITH FUNDAMENTALLY
TRANSFORMING THE SOUTH INTO A
PLACE THAT WAS TRULY FREE, TRULY
EQUAL, AND TRULY SAFE FOR
BLACK --
>> WHAT'S THE CENTRAL PARADOX OF
GRANT'S LIFE.
HIS TERMS ARE SO MAGNANIMOUS AND
GENEROUS AT APPOMATTOX
COURTHOUSE THAT GRANT AT THAT
POINT BECOMES THE SYMBOL OF
NORTH/SOUTH RECONCILIATION.
HE REFUSES TO ENTER RICHMOND
WHICH WAS THE CAPITAL OF THE
CONFEDERACY AFTER IT FELL.
HIS WIFE JULIA WANTED HIM TO GO.
HE SAID JULIA, DON'T YOU
UNDERSTAND HOW BITTER DEFEAT IS
FOR THESE PEOPLE.
>> TALK ABOUT HIS PRESIDENCY,
THE FAILURES AND THE TRUIUMPHS.
>> THERE WERE FAILURES.
THERE WERE A LOT OF SCANDALS.
HE DID NOT CONDONE THEM.
HE PROSECUTED THEM VIGOROUSLY.
TALKING ABOUT HOW NAIVE GRANT
COULD BE.
HE WAS VERY BLIND TO THE
MACHINATIONS OF PEOPLE IN HIS
IMMEDIATE VICINITY.
BUT WHAT I TRIED TO SHOW IN THE
BOOK IS THE SCANDALS, THE REAL
AND WE'RE TALKING ABOUT WERE THE
MINOR STORY OF HIS
ADMINISTRATION.
HIS EFFORT TO CRUSH THE KU KLUX
KLAN, GRANT'S JUSTICE DEPARTMENT
BRINGS 3,000 DOYMTS AGAINST THE
KLAN.
HIS EFFORTS TO PROTECT THE
AFRICAN AMERICAN COMMUNITY, THE
FACT THAT HE BECAME THE MOST
IMPORTANT PRESIDENT FOR THE
AFRICAN AMERICAN COMMUNITY
BETWEEN ABRAHAM LINCOLN AND
LYNDON JOHNSON.
THIS SEEMS TO BE AS A COUNTRY A
MUCH BIGGER AND MORE IMPORTANT
STORY.
>> ALL RIGHT, RON.
IT'S A REALLY WONDERFUL BOOK.
THERE IS SO MUCH IN HERE.
WE JUST BEGAN TO TOUCH THE
SERVICE.
"GRANT" BY RON CHERNOW.
THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR JOINING
US.
MY PLEASURE.
THANK YOU.

Funders

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