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THE GENERAL AND THE JOURNALISTS
Reviewed by Dave Walter
This book depicts the lives of three giants of the times: General/President Grant and the two best known and influential journalists of the day. Their lives became entwined, and they influenced each other to the extent that the history of the United States was affected.
Mr. Maihafer is, like Grant, a graduate of West Point. He's a retired Colonel, former banker, and has a master's in journalism, which may explain the juxtaposition of the subjects of his book. American history is full of fascinating characters: rogues, radicals, heroes, malcontents, honorable men, well-meaning but flawed ideologues, pragmatists, pirates, and the like. This book whets the appetite to read individual biographies of each to learn more about their characters, the times they lived in, and the changes they made. (One cannot fully appreciate the Dan Rather controversy today without an understanding of how Greeley and Dana changed the profession in their times.)
The author states these three men are the ones he'd like to meet if, by some magic, he could visit the 19th century. The preface to the book clearly states why:
"Hearing [Greeley's] name today, people tend to think of "Go West, Young Man." Well, he did say that, or at least something close to it. But he said, and wrote, countless other things in what was arguably the most prolific, influential life in the annals of American journalism.
"Although he was opinionated, eccentric, and overly concerned with political wheeling and dealing, he was also an eloquent conversationalist and a true crusader. ... In modern terms, we might think of him as a combined 'Washington Post,' 'New York Times,' major television network, and for good measure, a bit of Rush Limbaugh. In Greeley's heyday, there were few discussions that weren't influenced by 'what Uncle Horace has to say on the subject.'
"Talking with Charles Dana, however, would be quite a different matter. First of all, he might give us a choice of languages; he was fluent in a half dozen....The young Dana would come across as a bright, idealistic scholar, thirsty for knowledge, full of ambition, and possessed of great personal charm. An older Dana, by contrast, would be a crusty, affluent businessman, a connoisseur of fine wine, a world traveler, and above all, a confirmed cynic. His conversation would still sparkle, but his wit would be full of barbs, often targeted at what today we call the 'establishment.'
"Probably my greatest challenge would come as I tried to engage Ulysses Grant, the legendary 'quiet man,' in conversation. In social gatherings, Grant usually sat rather silently, perhaps puffing on a cigar, taking in what others were saying but volunteering little himself. In a small group, however, especially with trusted friends, he would open up. When he did, people listened, for his words were thoughtful and full of good-natured common sense.
"Early in the war, the pacifist Greeley was outspoken in his criticism of West Pointers, and after Shiloh, much of that criticism was directed at Grant. Later, when Grant showed his true worth as a commander, Greeley sang his praises, even proposing him as a presidential candidate in place of Lincoln. Then, in 1872, Horace Greeley, despite being a co-founder of the Republican Party, paradoxically ran for president against the Republican candidate, Ulysses Grant.
"The Dana/Grant relationship probably underwent the most dramatic shifts of all. Dana, as a War Department observer sent to report on Grant, was a major player in the general's rise to military prominence. A few years later, as editor of the 'New York Sun,' Dana became the country's most vicious critic of Grant's administration. Eventually, however, when he wrote his Civil War 'Recollections,' a mellowing Dana spoke of Grant with respect and affection.
"For anyone interested in human nature, and who is not, these changing relationships can be fascinating. They may also help explain why Ulysses Grant has come down to us wrapped in such a puzzling dichotomy, that of a very good general/very bad president. Obviously the press played a major role in creating each of those overly simplistic portraits."
Without Charles Dana's coverage of the Vicksburg Campaign, Grant may have never become commander in chief of the Union Army. He helped convince Lincoln and others that derogatory rumors about Grant were false. This book is less than 300 pages long, but crammed with fascinating information, irony and wit and is a worthy addition to your 19th century history library shelf.