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Are We Broken? What U.S. Grant Can Teach Us

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It’s common these days to hear people complain that the system is broken. It doesn’t matter what their issue is or which side of the aisle they’re on, they’re equally disenchanted. When they talk about “the system,” they mean the American way, the Republic, our democracy. As a journalist I hear a lot of these complaints firsthand when I’m out in the community, traveling, giving speeches, playing golf or at my kids’ sporting events. People are worried.

The belief in the brokenness of our system is so pervasive that it’s easy to despair, and that’s why it’s helpful to look back in history for context. Once before, the American system of government really was broken — during the Civil War. I wrote my latest presidential biography, “To Rescue the Republic: Ulysses S. Grant, the Fragile Union, and the Crisis of 1876,” because Grant was a leader throughout the period of crisis during and after the war — first as the commander of the Union armies and later as a two-term president. As I researched the book, I was struck time and again by how well Grant’s personal qualities were suited to those times. His life story might well be titled “how to mend a broken system.”

Grant was not always a perfect messenger. He had his flaws — a history of problems with alcohol, repeated failures in civilian occupations, a presence that was shuffling and self-denigrating to a fault. But he had a rare gift for leadership that shone through in times of extreme crisis. He was a savant when it came to military strategy, which is why President Lincoln singled him out to command the Union armies. A story made the rounds that when aides to Lincoln expressed doubt about the appointment, citing the rumors of Grant’s drinking, Lincoln replied, “Do you know what brand of whiskey Grant drinks? I would like to get barrels of it and send it to my other generals.” (When the authenticity of........

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