Where did the heroes go? Sift through biographies

The Argument

However brilliant and balanced, books of lives give only glimpses of a whole person.


March 21, 2004|By John E. McIntyre | John E. McIntyre,Sun Staff

Eighty years ago, H.L Mencken observed, "The chief business of the nation, as a nation, is the setting up of heroes, mainly bogus." It may offer some solace, after the turmoil and upheavals of the 20th century, to reflect how little has changed.

Last month's presidential candidate was marching infallibly to the nomination; this month he is a has-been. Last week's stock guru / diet guru / therapy guru turns out to be this week's charlatan. The ink hardly dries on the cover photo of the celebrity wedding before the issue with the celebrity divorce reaches the stands.

All ride giddily up on Fortune's wheel, and all are catapulted to the bottom. An eager, if fickle, public sighs to watch them soar -- and snickers to see them crash. This is an adolescent attitude: Teen-agers, having outgrown the childish belief that Mommy and Daddy are all-wise and all-powerful, react by curling their lips at their parents' foibles and frailties. The social problem is how to grow up. How to progress to a more mature attitude about our public figures, to achieve a perspective that encompasses both strengths and weaknesses.

It has been done, in biography. The first and greatest of English biographies, Boswell's Life of Johnson, gives full value to Samuel Johnson's intellectual and moral power, his heroic struggle against poverty and physical defects, his achievements in language and literature. And it also presents his rudeness, his questionable hygiene and regrettable table manners, his prejudices, his uncouth appearance. By the end, Boswell, in limning his defects, has magnified his greatness.

Look, then, to biography to discover whether there are scales that allow the reader to weigh the pluses against the minuses of a man's character, or a sieve through which the bogus can be sifted out. (Because of limitations of space, this essay focuses on male heroism of the stoic warrior type. Female heroism exists and deserves its own distinctive treatment.)

Conrad Black, the press baron, sees both sides of Franklin Roosevelt (Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom -- Public Affairs / Perseus Books, 1,281 pages, $39.95). FDR brought the nation through the Great Depression with a modified capitalist system intact, agilely dodging the prevailing extremes of fascism and communism. He also, Lord Black argues, coaxed America onto the world stage by degrees, moving the country permanently out of isolationism into internationalism. He saved freedom in Europe. And he accomplished all this while battling the effects of a crippling disease, triumphing through sheer strength of will.

But the master of politics was also a politician in some of the worst senses of the word: duplicitous, evasive, so adept at equivocation that people of all inclinations and ambitions left his office imagining that they had his support. He made use of people while they suited his purposes, and then unceremoniously dropped them.

He told stories about his past that grossly exaggerated his own role and importance in events -- outside the realm of politics this is called "lying." He perfected what Lord Black calls "the mundane political arts": "obfuscation, prevarication, flattery, sophistical evasion, and various forms of pandering." Here, too, the defects highlight the accomplishment.

Making it through Lord Black's book is an accomplishment in itself. If he, or his editor, had sacrificed some of the encomiums to FDR that seemingly occur on every other page, the publisher might have had room for a more readable typeface.

Roosevelt's presidency hardly lacks for champions, but Ulysses S. Grant's is another matter. Jean Edward Smith has taken on a major task of rehabilitation (Grant -- Simon & Schuster, 781 pages, $35) that is only partially successful.

Grant was a stoic, selling firewood on the streets of St. Louis in his period of failure and poverty between the Mexican War and Civil War. He possessed enormous physical courage. When he stood impassively within range of Confederate fire, one Union soldier said admiringly, "Ulysses don't scare worth a damn." When he was dying of throat cancer, he uncomplainingly set out to write his memoirs to support his family, completing a masterpiece of prose in the American plain style only weeks before his death.

Smith takes pains to point out the overlooked strengths of the Grant presidency, particularly in Grant's emphasis on reconciliation rather than revenge during Reconstruction and his determination that the freedmen be granted their full rights as citizens. (After Grant left office, his party abandoned the cause of African-Americans and allowed the South to go ahead with Jim Crow legislation.) His administration had fiscal and diplomatic successes. Grant was sympathetic to the cause of Native Americans.

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