HAVING offered you Civil War history rewritten by Winston...

September 04, 1995|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

HAVING offered you Civil War history rewritten by Winston Churchill (Aug. 28) and by McDonogh School students (Aug. 31), here, as promised, is the classic of the genre.

Myron Beckenstein and Neil Grauer reminded me of it. The former lent me a copy to quote from. Thanks, Myron. I needed that. This would lose something in translation if I quoted from memory.

The piece was written by James Thurber. Its title was "If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox." Gen. U. S. Grant, with jacket unbuttoned and one boot off, greets Gen. Robert E. Lee with, "I know who you are. You're Robert Browning the poet." Informed he was wrong, he handed Lee a bottle of Scotch.

A dignified Lee said, "I would like to have this over with as soon as possible." Grant had no idea what he meant. "The surrender, sir, the surrender," an aide whispered.

"Oh sure, sure," Grant said, took another drink, then unbuckled his sword and handed it to Lee. "There you are, General," he said, "We dam' near licked you. If I'd been feeling better we would of licked you."

* * * *

Grant had a history of drinking too much, but that did not become an issue when he ran for president in 1868. That's probably because when he ran for president he didn't run for president. He made no speeches. He just issued a statement saying, "Let us have peace."

Colin Powell can't get away with that if he runs for president. Those days are gone forever. If Grant ran for president today, the press, his opponents and their spin doctors would hound him out of the race and into the Betty Ford clinic by Oct. 1.

That paragraph is not meant to suggest that Colin Powell has a drinking problem. He doesn't. Nor do I imply he'd like to avoid campaigning. He's a terrific speech maker. He's like Grant only in that he's a famous and popular general of unknown political inclinations. Grant, who was elected as a Republican, only voted once in a presidential election before he became a candidate himself. In 1856 he voted for Democrat James Buchanan against Republican John C. Fremont, a former Army officer. Why? "Because I knew Fremont."

So unknown are Powell's politics that in 1992, according to George Bush aide Mary Matalin, serious consideration was given to dumping Dan Quayle from the Republican ticket and replacing him with General Powell; meanwhile, according to her husband James Carville, a Clinton aide, that camp was considering offering the Democratic vice presidential nomination to the general.

Had he become vice president, Powell would have a good shot at becoming president. Fourteen vice presidents have moved up. But if Powell had run as the vice presidential candidate on the losing ticket, that would probably have done him in. Only one man ever overcame that embarrassment and become president: Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Hmmmm. What if Powell had been on both tickets?

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