CHERNOW MEETS THE PRESS

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.

TRANSCRIPT

> 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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