Politics & Policy

Who Is Today’s Harry Truman?

Nobody, really, but some come closer than others.

Sixty years ago this weekend, the members of a reluctant 80th Congress trudged back to the capital for a special session called by President Harry S. Truman. The Republican-controlled Congress had adjourned in late June, as was customary in the days before air conditioning became common, but in mid-July Truman summoned them back to steamy Washington, supposedly to pass laws related to civil rights, Social Security, and health care. In the way of country-boy presidents going back to Andrew Jackson, Truman threw in a folksy touch, saying the session would start on “what we in Missouri call ‘Turnip Day.’ ”

As expected, Congress assembled on the specified day, went through the motions for two weeks, and passed no legislation. Still, Truman got what he wanted. For the rest of the campaign, he ceaselessly blamed the “Do-Nothing 80th Congress” for everything that was wrong with the country. The result: Truman was reelected in a shocking upset, and the Democrats regained control of Congress.

In 2008, President Bush is not running for reelection, and for many reasons he is unlikely to pull a Turnip Day–type stunt. Still, hopeful conservatives keep comparing Bush to Truman, whose battered reputation improved enormously after he left office. This comparison began soon after September 11, picked up steam following the Iraq invasion, gained new meaning when that war saw American reverses, and continues to be propounded as the end of Bush’s presidency nears.

The parallels are certainly tempting. During his administration, Truman faced a dangerous and rapidly changing geopolitical scene, saw Congress turn against his party, was returned to office in a very close election, and pursued an increasingly unpopular war against a foe that was supported by a powerful and ambitious neighbor. As he straggled to the end of his second term, his approval ratings were in the 20s; yet by the time of his death in 1972, he had become “Give ’Em Hell Harry,” a folk hero who won admiration even from opponents for his staunch resistance to the spread of Communism. Substitute “Islamic terror” for “Communism,” and you have the neoconservative vision of George W. Bush’s post-presidential trajectory.

While many observers scoff at this scenario, the post-retirement rehabilitation of George W. Bush is virtually certain to occur, and it’s even possible to say when: as soon as we get another Republican president. A few years into that president’s term, commentators will drag out their usual line about how “for all the criticism he took, Bush embodied the true principles of classical conservatism, unlike this loser we’re stuck with now.” It happened with Eisenhower, Ford, Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and even, in some quarters, with Nixon. And unless the press and academia suddenly lose their compulsion to call each new Republican the worst president ever, it is sure to happen with George W. Bush as well.

So in that sense, our current president is, indeed, this generation’s Truman. But Bush is far from the only figure who wants to be heir to the Sage of Independence. How Trumanesque are the rest of this era’s presidents and presidential wannabes?

Bill Clinton

When Truman left the presidency, he was unemployed; politics had been his only job for 30 years. Various companies offered him well-paid sinecures for the use of his name, but he turned them down and got to work writing his memoirs. A few years later, he had to ask Congress for money to pay his living expenses; back then, there was no legal provision to take care of ex-presidents, not even a pension. Contrast this with the Clintons’ $100 million–plus bonanza after Bill left office. Not much of a parallel there.

On a personal level, Bill Clinton is the most Trumanesque of our recent Presidents; he comes from a genuinely humble background and still retains much of his down-to-earth style. But his presidency was a lot less challenging than Truman’s, and he stayed popular by doing what is admittedly a very difficult thing for a Democrat: Sitting back and letting the economy run itself. The difference between the two amounts to this: Harry Truman grew into the presidency, while Bill Clinton shrank the office to fit him.

Hillary Clinton

During the primaries she showed flashes of Truman’s Comeback Kid style, and she comes the closest among today’s contenders to duplicating his traditional Democratic coalition-building methods. She also favors Truman’s kitchen-sink approach to attacking opponents; in the 1948 election, Truman was the fierce partisan battler while the Republican candidate, Thomas Dewey, took a much calmer and more nuanced approach (to his ultimate detriment). Late in this year’s Democratic campaign, Hillary began invoking the Truman parallel explicitly, and there’s no telling what may happen four or eight years from now to deepen the resemblance.

Yet with her comfortable background, fancy education, and E-Z Pass entrance into politics, Hillary Clinton is nothing like Truman, the failed haberdasher–turned-politician who never went to college. Her detail-laden speeches and scripted clunkers like “change you can Xerox” are no match for Truman’s “the buck stops here” and “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” Hillary adopts the style of Harry Truman and would love to inherit his mantle, but she lacks the common touch that made it work for him.

Barack Obama

The Illinois senator has had a Truman-like career: A nonentity who rose through the ranks in a big-city machine and eventually outgrew his patrons. That kind of system breeds savvy politicians, and both Truman and Obama were able to work with numerous questionable associates without getting too heavily corrupted. Where they differ is that in Truman’s day a “community organizer” was a ward heeler, not a rabble-rouser or bomb-thrower.

If you look for parallels with the 1948 election, Obama, characteristically, is a blend: Sometimes like Truman, but also like Dewey in his aloofness and his woolly stump rhetoric, while his political views, socialist at home and internationalist abroad, are much more like those of Henry Wallace, the Progressive candidate. Still, Obama’s slick, polished style is anything but Trumanesque, and his express-elevator rise to the top contrasts sharply with Truman’s slow, steady climb. Truman, who always respected a fellow battler, would have been, at the very least, nonplussed at Barack Obama’s sudden ascent to prominence.

John McCain

He certainly has the feisty style down, though he uses it nearly as often against his allies as against his opponents. Like Truman, he is genuinely straightforward (as politicians go). Truman made his reputation during World War II with the Senate’s Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, and McCain has also been a scourge of waste and fraud in the military. Both fought in wars, though Truman, an Army captain from World War I, was often disdainful of Navy officers. And both men knew how to get things done in the Senate, if not always good things. Most of all, McCain, like Truman, has been rock-solid on national security, energetically opposing the greatest global threat of his day wherever it appears.

Like most historical parallels, similarities between Truman and today’s politicians can be taken too far. Politics and government have long since become big business, and there’s very little room for an authentic Truman figure today. But when it comes to combining down-to-earthness (real or fake) with a talent for political nitty-gritty, John McCain is the closest thing on today’s national scene to a Harry S. Truman for the 21st century.

Fred Schwarz is a deputy managing editor of National Review.


The Latest