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XP - A PR Challenge for the Ages

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  • Ned Barnett
    Recently, I got into two unconnected discussions about Ulysses S. Grant, the first Lieutenant General in the US Army since Washington, and the 18th President
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 31, 2009
      Recently, I got into two unconnected discussions about Ulysses S. Grant, the
      first Lieutenant General in the US Army since Washington, and the 18th
      President of the United States - and I've concluded that Grant has an image
      problem - a PR challenge for the ages. First, I'll give a lot of background
      (if you don't have the background, you won't be able to offer insightful
      answers), then I'll ask you how Grant's image can be rehabilitated through
      PR.

      ***

      As a General, many historians consider him a "butcher" for the way he won
      the Civil War, though the facts don't bear this out; and as a President, he
      has often been considered both ineffectual and an amiable dupe of a group of
      corrupt men who stole the country blind while Grant presided in serene
      ignorance of their perfidy - again, however, the facts don't bear this out.
      Both of these charges were, IMO, first politically motivated during Grant's
      lifetime for short-term political advantage (his presidency) or by
      Confederates "smarting" over the way this uncouth commoner could have
      consistently whipped that epitome of the aristocratic Southern Gentleman,
      Robert E. Lee.

      In the bloodiest war in US history, Grant was remarkably economical of his
      soldiers' lives, and he felt their loss keenly (he was also "economical" of
      his enemies' lives - eager to end the war before more Americans from either
      side had to die). Grant fought but one battle where loss of life was
      excessive and preventable, and he never forgot the horror - or the lessons -
      of Cold Harbor. Still, fewer soldiers died there than in Lee's last throw
      of the dice at Gettysburg (Pickett's Charge) or at his own charge on Malvern
      Hill during the Peninsula campaign - and of course, Lee presided over
      Antietam (or, to the South, the battle of Sharpsburg) - the bloodiest one
      day in American History. Both of these great men felt losses deeply, but in
      the cauldron of war, each had made mistakes that cost mens' lives. It is
      instructive that Lee had relatively few of these - but Grant had only one -
      yet Lee is remembered for the care in which he husbanded his troops, while
      Grant is unjustly smeared with the title "Butcher."

      Lincoln, who felt deeply every American death (North and South) respected
      Grant as he respected no other man - and Lincoln was personally unable to
      support any man who was a "butcher." Once, when Grant's opponents in the
      war department snivelingly came to Lincoln claiming that Grant was a drunk
      (a calumny based on a bout of depression Grant experienced in the mid-50s in
      California in Army service, separated for years from his wife and children),
      Lincoln said, in effect, "What brand does he drink? I want to send a case
      to every one of my Generals." While Grant was in service during the war,
      Lincoln was - along with Grant's home-town Congressman and friend - Grant's
      strongest advocate. Lincoln was shrewd judge of character - he defended
      those, like Grant, who had the highest personal integrity coupled with
      military effectiveness. And that support from Lincoln says more than
      anything else about Grant the man, and about Grant the General.

      As a peacemaker, there was no-one more generous than Grant - when Lee
      surrendered, Grant immediately ordered that Lee's men be fed from Union
      rations (not the action of a bloodthirsty conqueror). Further, out of
      respect, he ordered that the Confederate officers - rather than going to
      jail - could keep their swords and sidearms, and that all Confederates,
      regardless of their rank, could take their horses and mules home to
      facilitate the Spring planting. Finally, in that surrender document, Grant
      specifically forbade the US government from arresting or prosecuting any
      surrendered Confederate for his role in the war, as long as that Confederate
      abided by the terms of the surrender (basically, to not take up arms and
      fight the American government anymore). This latter provision tied the
      hands of those in Washington who wanted to try and execute General Lee, at
      the very least.

      As a President, Grant brought to an end the shameful "reconstruction" era in
      the South, and insisted that Southerners were once again Americans, with all
      the rights, privileges and obligations of American citizens. He was also
      the first president to specifically (and deeply) care about the fate of the
      Indians in America - he took positive steps to stop the war on the plains
      and bring an honorable peace between settlers and Indians . and to ensure
      their long-term protection of (and role in) America. This wasn't a "new"
      position - on Grant's wartime staff, at a very high level, was an officer
      who was a full-blooded Native American - a man Grant treated as he did every
      other officer on his staff (and this at a time when there was not only
      strong racial prejudice against Indians, but also at a time when the only
      Indians participating in the Civil War were Cherokees fighting on behalf of
      the Confederacy against the Union in the "trans-Mississippi" theater of
      operations (Arkansas, Missouri, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoman Territory).

      Grant did much that was good as President - so much so that he had to
      actively refuse a "draft" to make him the first American president to serve
      three consecutive terms (and if he'd accepted this draft, he would have won
      hands-down - he was that popular) - he was also courted to run again after
      his successor's first term as President. In short, his fellow citizens -
      North and South - honored him despite the scandals (common to all
      Administrations in the era between Andrew Johnson and William McKinley) that
      never touched him. Nobody questioned his integrity - his biggest flaw was
      that he trusted me who'd once proved trustworthy, but who (tempted by money
      or power - usually money) had failed to live up to that trust. That is
      hardly the worst sin a sitting American President had committed.

      Grant was a man of immense integrity and deep personal responsibility. Upon
      learning that he had throat cancer, knowing that he wouldn't be there to
      support his beloved Julia, he set out to write his autobiography (something
      his natural modesty had kept him from doing until necessity over-rode
      humility). It was and is one of the most honest and objective (and
      remarkably well-written) autobiographies I've ever encountered - certainly
      heads and shoulders above the rest coming out of the Civil War. To make it
      happen, a Missourian and Southern sympathizer (though not a combatant)
      Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) borrowed against everything he owned to ensure
      the publication of this remarkable work - before a word had been written.
      If it failed, Clemens would have been ruined (but thanks to the generous
      advance he had given to Grant, Mrs. Grant would have been provided for).
      Grant finished this book barely two days before he died.

      When Grant died, the largest parade in American' history was held, in New
      York City, to honor his passing. This was decades after the Civil War, and
      more than a dozen years after he'd last served as President - yet Americans
      (including Americans not yet born when the Civil War ended) came out in
      unprecedented numbers to honor his memory. Leading that parade in Manhattan
      was a group of Confederate veterans, wearing the Gray one more time -
      honoring the many who defeated him, but who treated them so honorably and
      compassionately that he stood higher in their minds than many of their own
      Generals and leaders. When Grant's autobiography came out, it became the
      best-selling book in American history (except for the bible - far and away
      the best-seller in American history) - the public, though Grant was beyond
      honoring, still poured out their love and regard for this brave and great
      man by buying his book in record numbers.

      The judgment by those who knew him during his life - and the judgment of the
      people he served - was clear. Grant was a great general, a President of no
      mean accomplishment, and a man of the highest personal standards. Lincoln
      judged him the best man in uniform on either side of the war, and Lincoln
      had been burnt so often by his generals that he was not eager to praise any
      one of them. The people judged him as a President worthy of an
      unprecedented third term - and in his death (long after he was out of the
      limelight), he was honored as no other President not assassinated in office.

      It was only a generation after Grant's passing that revisionist historians -
      eager for something new to say, and equally eager to give life to the worst
      calumnies of Grant's contemporary political opponents (and eager to "say
      something new" so they could get published and earn tenure) - began grinding
      away at this great man's reputation. With no contemporaries left to defend
      him, with no academics "with a dog in the fight" to dispute the lies, those
      lies stuck. Butcher. Failed President. Loser. Drunk. None, of course,
      was true, and more recently, yet another generation of historians have
      looked at Grant through documents and statistics, and through the
      perceptions of those who knew him best. In doing so, they completely
      revised "history's assessment" of Grant as General and as President - yet to
      the public, his image is still tarnished.

      ***

      Which brings us back to the original question - what can be done to restore
      this great and good man's reputation? What can PR do in the face of
      generations of ignorance imposed on Americans by scholars' self-serving
      assessments and public schools' parroting of those assessments?

      Ned Barnett, APR

      PR/Marketing Fellow, American Hospital Association

      Barnett Marketing Communications

      420 N. Nellis Blvd., A3-276

      Las Vegas, NV 89110

      702-696-1200

      http//www.barnettmarcom.com

      ned@... <mailto:ned%40barnettmarcom.com>

      Exceptional Marketing for Exceptional Clients

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