Monday, June 30, 2008

America's Calling, Harry Truman

There’s another chain e-mail floating around, the “message” type that puts things in the simplest manner possible so that issues can be misunderstood by everyone. This one isn’t too offensive. It simply asks you, “Don’t you miss Ronald Reagan?” by quoting some of his better lines—some humorous (“The most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’”) and some pretty stirring (“No arsenal, or no weapon in the arsenals of the world, is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women).

I dont know that I can agree that we need another Reagan. Certainly we could use someone with his optimism, his humor and his simplicity. But more than that, we need someone who can be both optimistic and honest to the point of bluntness, someone who can simple without being simplistic.

Case in point: Harry S Truman.

Ive always had a soft spot in my heart for the little man from Independence, Missouri. Although he never had flash or charisma, people could relate to him instantly: He wasone of us, in a way that people like Barack Obama and John McCain could never be. He had noside orposes; he was genuine and sincere. He knew he wasnt brilliant, although he was very intelligent and well-read, so he had no qualms about bringing in people who could shore up his weak spots, especially George C. Marshall and Dean Acheson.

The amazing thing about Truman is that he was alate bloomer, elected to his first post in 1926 at the relatively old age of forty-two the same age at which Theodore Roosevelt succeeded William McKinley to the White House. After serving eight years as a county judge (basically a supervisor of roads and public buildings), he was elected to the Senate after a hard-fought campaign that would foreshadow the 1948 Presidential election. When he was nominated vice-president, after almost ten years of conscientious yet undistinguished service in the Senate and chairmanship of a very effective yet little-publicized committee on waste in the war effort, it wasnt by any effort of his own; it was the result of one of Roosevelts shell games, keeping his people guessing and distracted about his aims until the last minute.

(This much is speculation: Roosevelt had to know he wouldnt live out his fourth term, and that whoever was elected with him would finish it out, so he must have seen something in the unremarkable man to make Truman his running mate.)

During his tenure of office, Truman garnered his share of brickbats, which never fazed him:If you cant stand the heat, his most-quoted maxim runs,get out of the kitchen. Early in his first term, he brought in some friends from Missouri as kind of akitchen cabinet, which led Republicans to decry hisgovernment by crony. (However, with one or two exceptions, most of the cronies didnt survive the first year.) A few times, reporters caught him out in ignorance of what other people in his cabinet were saying. He simply could not find an effective way to squelch Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose claims of Communists in the State Department had never been sullied by veracity. While his firing of General Douglas MacArthur was unquestionably warranted, it was also condemned in almost hysterical terms. And the ill-tempered letter he wrote to a music critic about the latters review of one of Margaret Trumans performances drew sneers as being beneath Presidential dignity.

But he also did some remarkable things in those almost eight years. For instance, he was the first Democrat to openly call for—nay, demand!—civil rights legislation, a move that nearly split the Southern vote completely out from the party. The Truman Doctrine would guide American foreign-affairs dealings from 1946 to the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The Marshall Plan, an offshoot of that doctrine, would rebuild Western Europe. Chief of the glories was the Berlin Airlift, by which America would feed and heat that besieged city by the only route the Soviets had left open to them. And Truman not only supported the creation of the Department of Defense, which has refined the art of combined-arms warfare, but also the creation of the Air Force as a separate branch.

The most remarkable thing, though, was the 1948 race. Long before the Democratic convention, the polls were predicting an easy victory for Republican Thomas E. Dewey, the governor of New York (whom Alice Roosevelt Longworth apostrophized asthe little man on the wedding cake). Since their most likely candidate had already become the butt of so many jokes (To err is Truman,Dont shoot our piano player; hes doing the best he can), candidates showed up at the convention resigned to defeat. (One popular button read, in a spoof of an old popular ditty,Im just mild about Harry.) To make matters worse, after Trumans nomination was secured, theDixiecrats walked out of the convention in protests; they would go on to name Sen. Strom Thurmond their candidate. In ordinary political years, a split in one party almost guarantees victory for the other party.

Then Truman showed up, and with a five-minute extemporaneous speech whipped the convention into a frenzy. He called Congress back into an extra session, giving them goals which they said they wanted to achieve, then lambasted them as theDo-Nothing 80th Congress when they passed nothing. Then he took to the hustings on a whirlwind train circuit of the country that Republicans derided as awhistle-stop tour, speaking to ever-larger crowds who cheered him on:Giveem hell, Harry! Meanwhile, the Republicans, convinced by the polls which continually put Dewey in the lead, did nothing to counteract his stumping the states. The culmination was an upset thumping: Truman not only beat both Dewey and Thurmond but carried a Democratic majority back into Congress as well.

Thats one other thing missing from todays political scene: No one—not even Uncle Ronnie when he was running—can fire up the electorate like Harry did that amazing year. Even Barack Obamas wildly successful (so far) grass-roots campaign is too nice, too decorous.

And perhaps its that very decorousness thats symptomatic of the illness of modern American politics. Truman was the product of a politicalmachine—the Pendergasts, who owned Democratic politics in the Kansas City area in the20s and30s. But Truman was also proof that, while the machines could engage in dirty tricks to get the votes they wanted, they often produced honest, dedicated politicians. Machines were possible because the parties were still interested in getting turnout. The parties didnt depend on massive flyers and media advertisement to get votes; they had ward and precinct workers actively go to peoples houses, as well as to the places they hung out at the bars, the VFWs, the lodge meetings and so forth. The machines may have had their limitations and defects, but they got bodies into voting booths. Nowadays, it doesnt seem like either party wants to soil its hands with the voters; let the candidate do all the work!

So it may be that a politician like Harry Truman isnt possible anymore. That would be a shame. After fifty-six years of mostly-uncommon men, it would be nice to have a President whose first contact with a plow wasnt a photo-op, who had struggled to make ends meet for a few years, whose image wasnt manufactured by outside consultants. It would definitely be nice to have a person who lived by two credos:The buck stops here, and Mark TwainsAlways do right; this will gratify some and astonish the rest.