Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Buck Stops Here

I remember as an 8-year old history buff proudly declaring my non-traditional pick for worst president.

"Who do you think is our worst president," would ask my adult neighbor, with whom I often discussed civil war history and other topics.

"I think Harry Truman was our worst president," said the skinny know-it-all kid.

"Why would you say that," Jerry would reply.

"Because if he'd finished the job in Korea, we wouldn't have had Vietnam."

So works the mind of an 8 year old whose most extensive foreign policy experience involved negotiations between the kids on my street and those in the new neighborhood behind us. Keep in mind that in 1983, it was a big deal that we had "lost" Vietnam because America had never "lost" a war according to the history books I had managed to read (not sure how they accounted for the War of 1812).

Twenty five years later, I am in the middle of reading Harry Truman's biography by David McCullough. It is a remarkable work about a remarkable man. Lets just say this: I stand corrected, and Truman is certainly in my top 10 list of presidents.

The issues that he had to contend with -- the emergence of the USSR and communism, the moral and policy implications of the atom bomb and subsequent hydrogen bomb, the emerging civil rights situation, the creation of Israel, communist aggression in China, the legacy of depression-era government programs in a thriving economy -- would have swamped many. Almost any one of them would have been a defining event for most of our recent presidents.

But Truman, who began as the son of a farmer and failed politician, clearly had a wonderful sense that came from a background without advantage or prestige, but with considerable common sense and decisiveness. He could have nuked the Russians before they had the bomb, and he didn't, despite State Department pressure to go to war with the Soviets. He could have blown North Korea off the map, and he didn't. He had the courage to remove Gen. Douglas McArthur, one of America's military icons, from command.

So, an interesting epistle on history, huh?

Actually, I was struck as I read by some of the similarities between that era and this one.
  • A mysterious "movement" spreading across part of the world that America and free states are trying to contain (Radical Islam and communism) and a strong focus on the future of democracy in the middle east.
  • A confident, compelling politician preaching about unity leads an older, less compelling candidate by double digit poll margins as an election approaches (although the parties of Obama and Dewey are reversed, many Republicans are hoping McCain can pull off a similar upset to what unelected incumbent Truman managed in 1948).
  • And a general "we're not sure what's ahead" malaise in America.

But the Truman story offers hope. It shows that it doesn't take a high-priced education, a wealthy family, or incredible eloquence to lead. These stories show that much of the strength of America is in its values, its strong pride, and our willingness to defend our traditions and way of life. These strengths are balanced by our Christian ethics and our willingness to admit mistakes and change policies when necessary. If you haven't read it, I encourage anyone to pick up and read McCullough's Truman. A wonderful read as the elections approach.

P.S. For those of you interested in a local connection, Truman at one point justifies his support for civil rights legislation to someone from his home town in Missouri by referencing the infamous Moore's Ford murders, as well as a similarly gruesome incident in Batesburg, SC.


Jmac said...

Good post, though I have some disagreements with the parallels between the current President Bush and Truman or, more specifically, the similarity of the events going on now compared to the ones in the past.

While there are some surface ones - a rising threat to global stability, compelling young candidate - I always think it's too broad of a brush to compare the threat posed by the Soviet Union with the one we face with Radical Islam. The former had the very real potential to eradicate the U.S. and its allies from the planet, while the latter can be very lethal, but lacks the organization and resources to ever do so.

BTW, I voted for Carter for underrated president. His 'Malaise' speech was actually quite brilliant and got the wrong play in the press, and his energy policy is very similar to what both Obama and McCain are talking about now. I was leaning the first President Bush due to his work to begin to assist Europe's transition from a divided continent to a unified one, but the energy policy stuff won out.

Brian said...


Thanks for the comment. I was actually comparing Dewey and Obama as much as anything, with Truman being the McCain figure (was disregarding incumbency). No comparison between Dubbya and Truman.


Anonymous said...

Many times it's the national leaders without the Ivy League education that produce the greatest successes (e.g. Truman). And coincidently, it's the Ivy Leaguers who get this nation in the most precarious of situations (e.g. every damn one of them)!

Brian said...

Anon -- a bit of a stretch there. Unless I miss my guess, Reagan, Johnson, Carter and Ford have been non-Ivy/non-academy presidents since Truman. They have found their share of messes, Johnson and Carter in particular.