Posted Monday, November 21, 2016.
This is Part Two of the three-part series I began posting last week. Part One is here. Part Three is in the works. Please keep in mind that all three parts are lifted from my notebooks and were written back in August. The reason I’m posting them now is I’m trying to sort out my thoughts about the election and I figure it’s a good idea to know what I was thinking before I try to decide what I ought to be thinking now.
Also, I thought it might be heartening now that the worst man to be elected president is busy showing in what ways he’s the worst to remember one of the best.
President Harry Truman giving them hell from the back of his train during his Whistle-Stop campaign tour in the fall of 1948. Photo courtesy of the Harry S.Truman Library and Museum.
Picking up where I left off: Political candidates behind in the polls comparing themselves to Harry Truman is as traditional, routine, banal, and cheesily All-American as eating a corn dog at the Iowa State Fair.
The hopeful idea---or more often wishful thinking---is if you get out there on hustings, campaign your heart out, do your own version of a Whistle Stop Tour---even if the whistle is a police whistle you blow out the window of your mini-van to get the crowd in the mall parking lot to rally around, and GIVE. THEM. HELL! You can still pull out an upset win. If Truman did it, maybe you can too.
Two things wrong with the idea.
One is in order to do what Truman did you have to be more than like Truman. You have to be Harry Truman. You have to possess his strength of character, will, resolve, energy, fortitude, courage, and determination. But that isn’t enough. You have to have his particular advantages over his opponent, chief of which was that he was the incumbent President of the United States.
It’s a fact that Truman wasn’t popular at the moment. But in 1948 he wasn’t as unpopular as he was to become late in his presidency.
And it still mattered to people that he’d been FDR’s vice-president.
And, as it happened, although few noticed it as it was happening or made the connection,1948 turned out to be a Democratic year. Truman’s campaign was remarkable but he didn’t really go it all alone. He was part of a Democratic wave. Truman famously ran against the Do-Nothing Republican Congress but it looks like the American people were ahead of him on that.
The other thing wrong is that the polls weren’t wrong.
It’s just that by Election Day they were out of date. That last major polling was done two weeks before the election. In those two weeks there was some major shifting. Truman had two other opponents besides Dewey. Henry Wallace and Strom Thurmond.
Newt Gingrich tweeted about that in his little Tweetstorm comparing Donald Trump to Harry Truman:
Truman faced two third parties, one on segregationist front, one on pro Communist left. Elites KNEW Truman would lose. He fought back.
But they weren’t exactly third or minor party candidates. They were establishment Democrats running on minor party lines. Forget the “pro-Communist left” bit. That’s a standard Right Wing smear: Wallace represented the more liberal wing of the party that wanted to get back to work expanding the New Deal after World War II had caused a major scaling back of domestic reforms. Thurmond represented the segregationist but still populist and New Deal friendly (as long as it applied only to white folks) wing. Another way of putting this is that Dewey was running against three basically establishment Democrats and if taken together the polls would have shown him losing to a three-headed Democratic opponent. Come election day the party had more or less shed two of its three heads.
Like I said, at the last minute supporters of Wallace and Thurmond decided they were Democrats first and came home to their party’s nominee. Polls didn’t catch this because there were no polls to catch it.
Still, Newt Gingrich is within bounds invoking Truman in his Tweet as an example to rally the troops who at the moment can do with some rallying. [Editor’s note: When I wrote this back in early August, HRC’s post-convention bounce was only just beginning to fade and political press had just started to agree that the Clinton Foundation was a racket and a scandal second only to the emails in horror.]
And he isn’t off the mark with this one:
Just as there were Wallace and Thurmond deserters from Truman there are establishment deserters fleeing Trump. Most Americans don't care.
This is true, to a point. And it’s worth noting that many of those deserters came back to vote for Truman in the end. I suspect an awful lot of Republicans now saying #NeverTrump will discover they’re really #NeverADemocrat come November. As for now, I have to agree it’s likely that most Trump voters---if not most Americans---don’t care that establishment Republicans are deserting Trump. Or, rather, I think they do care in that they like it. It’s one of the reasons they’re rallying around Trump. The elites of both parties are against him. They believe, with good reason, the elites of both parties are against them, and they believe---with what I think is no good reason---that Trump will take on those elites in their name and beat the bastards at their own game.
And if Newt had left it at that, I wouldn’t have much to say except “So noted.” But he has to throw in this:
Truman is the modern outsider most like Trump.blunt, plain spoken, aggressive, energetic and willing to fight the establishment.
I don’t follow Newt on Twitter. But I do follow the historian Kevin Kruse and it was his responses that alerted me to Newt’s tweets. In the first of Kruse’s replies I saw in my timeline he was taking issue with Newt’s calling Truman an outsider taking on the establishment:
And here's a small point. Truman was an incumbent president, a former VP and senator. He *was* the establishment.
That’s actually not a small point and I’m pretty sure Kruse was being just a little bit sarcastic. And the difference between Truman being President Truman and Trump being a game show host is more than a matter of a difference in qualifications for the job or practical political advantage. Voters could judge Truman on his performance as President and that included the character he showed as a leader and a public man. Newt’s Tweet implies Trump is the equal of Truman in character and leadership ability.
At first glance, likening Trump to Truman in any way that’s flattering to Trump amounts to character assassination on Truman.
The list of ways Truman was a very different and very much better man is long, and it’s hard to know where to start. But let’s start here with what I brought up in Part One, Truman’s military record. Captain Harry Truman cheated to get into what he’d have thought of as the Great War and fought in some of the bloodiest battles of the war.. Four-deferment Don---or is it Five?---weaseled and cheated repeatedly to get out of the war, then had the gall to call his most lusty period of bed-hopping his Vietnam because of the risks he ran of contracting an STD.
And speaking of sex, it’s not something people tend to speak of when speaking of Truman because he was such a straight-arrow, even something of a prude, and, most importantly, famously devoted to his one and only wife Bess, who was his high school sweetheart and to whom he remained married until she died. Trump...well, it’s hardly necessary to get into his record as a husband.
Trump likes to brag that he went to Wharton. Truman couldn’t afford to go to college, but he spent his whole adult life making up for it. He was a relentless self-improver and auto-didact and when he got to Washington he seemed determined to read his way through the Library of Congress. Trump boasts that he knows everything he needs to know and has picked it all up at a glance. He apparently can be bothered to read his own position papers, such as they are, and if he’s read a book in the nearly fifty years since he left Wharton that wasn’t ostensibly written by “Donald Trump”, he’s kept that information and any evidence of it to himself.
As young men just starting out,Truman and Trump both went to work for their fathers. Trump’s father gave him a sack full of money to set himself up in business. Millions of dollars he proceeded to blow on bad business deals. Truman worked on his father’s farm, barely scratching out a living. And when he was able to go into business on his own it was as a small shopkeeper. He failed too but unlike Trump he didn’t fail upwards. His haberdashery closed its doors, leaving him with heavy debts he spent years struggling to pay off. Stiffing his creditors, along with his investors and employees, has been Trump’s preferred business model.
And when Truman became a senator he made his national reputation---or remade it. He was regarded dismissively at first as a political hack, a puppet of Missouri’s Democratic machine boss. The Senator From Pendergast, he was called.---going after unscrupulous businessmen who saw the crisis of the war as simply an opportunity to stuff their pockets with as much cash as they could lay their hands on. Donald Trump’s first thought on 9/11 when the towers fell was that the hole opened up at Ground Zero and the laying waste of the neighborhood around it was a golden opportunity for real estate developers like himself to make a bundle.
There just isn’t any point of comparison between the two that doesn’t show up Trump as not just a lesser man but a thoroughly despicable one. Even at the superficial level of Newt’s tweet, the words Gingrich uses to portray Trump as practically Truman’s twin---blunt, plain spoken, aggressive, energetic---mean very different things when applied to the two very different men and the differences amount to a bill of indictment of Trump’s character.
Truman could be blunt. He had a habit of saying exactly what he knew to be true at times when the targets of his bluntness were expecting hedging, temporizing, euphemizing, white lies and even out and out whoppers.
But he was generally diplomatic, circumspect, respectful, and careful in choosing his words. In fact, much of his plain speaking and bluntness occurred in private after he’d had to hold his tongue to avoid offending someone who had earned his contempt or wrath whom he couldn’t afford offending or ducked a question or obfuscated an answer to keep things out of the press.
In short, he was most plain spoken and blunt when he was blowing off steam to his wife and daughter, friends, family, and confidantes, and we now know about it because he wrote it down in letters, diaries, and in his memoirs or talked about it with journalists well after the fact, long after he was president in many cases. Our image of him as the blunt, plain speaker is to a great degree of his own creation and based upon what he said later he wished he could have said at the time.
But it was the 1972 bestselling book by Merle Miller, plainly titled Plain Speaking, that went longest way towards rehabilitating Truman's reputation posthumously. Miller assembled that book out of interviews with Truman conducted in 1961, when he was nearly ten years out of office, approaching eighty, with his age catching up to him. He had made himself the querulous conscience of the Democratic Party and had developed a tendency scold. And he was in a self-elegiac mood and inclined to burnish his own legend. It was thought that Miller may have embellished, But Truman may have done some of that himself, “remembering” having said out loud things he’d only thought at the time or restating things with more plainness and bluntness and less tact and diplomacy than he’d originally employed.
When he was in office, he kept himself in check because he was a responsible political leader and a responsible and skillful politician---there were times when you just didn’t speak plainly or bluntly to United States Senators, admirals and generals, cabinet secretaries, federal judges, foreign ambassadors, fellow world leaders, and voters either out of politeness, respect, or political calculation.
But he also did it because he was a responsible adult. There are things grown-ups have to keep to themselves in order not to frighten the children or start fights with the neighbors.
Donald Trump is not either a responsible adult or a responsible political leader. Everything he says is designed---as much as someone who seems guided by his impulses can be said to do anything by design as opposed to instinct and reflex and habit---to start fights and frighten people.
And telling voters any old lie you think they want to hear and you know will get you applause while using as few multi-syllable words as possible is hardly plain speaking. Insulting and mocking your opponents and anyone else you happen to take a disliking to or see as a convenient target is being blunt, I guess, as long as by blunt you mean crass, crude, childish, shameless, and offensive.
As for both being aggressive? That depends on what you mean by the word. If you mean tough-minded, determined, and fierce in pursuing a goal or in taking the fight to an opponent, then Truman was very aggressive or, could be, when he needed to be. He could be a lamb when that was needed too.
But if you mean willing to start fights for the sake of starting fights and willing to do anything to win, while trash-talking all the way, then Truman wasn’t aggressive. It’s one thing to reach for a rock to defend yourself. Another to be the first to throw a rock and do it when your opponent isn’t looking. But we don’t really know that that’s Trump. On the campaign trail he’s been not just willing to start fights but eager to. The thing is, throughout the primaries he was doing it with opponents who wouldn’t fight back. His aggression was all for show. It was professional wrestling level aggression, and isn’t funny how Trump’s connection to the world of professional wrestling’s been more or less forgotten? But now that he’s being challenged, aggressively, by an opponent who has no qualms about fighting back, who is in fact taking the fight to him, some of the fight seems to have gone out of him. He still makes a show of it. He makes a lot of noise. He may yet find a heavy rock to throw. I don’t know. All I’m saying is that his manner of aggressiveness is not the same as Truman’s and not as admirable.
And Trump’s energetic? I suppose. Driven, certainly. Hyper-active. Restless to the point of manic. But I guess energetic applies. It’s not a virtue though unless it’s directed towards virtuous ends.
Campaigning brought out the best in Truman, according to journalist Charlie Ross, Truman’s old high school friend, Pulitzer Prize winner, who eventually became Truman's White House press secretary.
“I think that Harry Truman grew, too,” [Ross wrote], “grew spiritually.” Truman had campaigned so hard [Aggressively?], said Ross, because he genuinely believed the essential welfare of the country was at stake. He wanted peace in the world, prosperity at home, and he wanted to make the Democratic Party truly the party of the people.
That’s from Truman by David McCullough.
Trump and his supporters would say Trump wants pretty much those things too. That’s what making America great again mean, peace in the world, and prosperity at home. But again, it matters what the words mean. It matters how peace and prosperity are to be brought about.. Peace on whose terms and on what terms? Peace through torture and the murder of women and children? Prosperity at the expense of the environment? Prosperity paid for by taking health care away from families? Is prosperity simply putting more money in the pockets of the already super-rich? And there’s no sign Trump cares about the future of the Republican party, and if he sees himself becoming a one-man party of any of the people, it’s white people. To people of other colors, he’s promising to be a tyrant and scourge.
Trump has no best to bring out. And in fact his whole campaign strategy and the basis of his appeal to his most fanatical supporters is for him to be gleefully and maliciously at his worst and to bring out the worst in his voters. But beside that the campaign has brought out the worst in him in his private behavior. There have been times when he’s clearly been at the point of desperation and despair, when he’s lost heart and lost hope and then lost his head. There have been days when it was a serious question as to whether he’d lost his mind. When things have gone badly for him he’s made it worse by behaving like a lunatic or a petulant and spiteful child. And when things have been going his way he’s seemed perversely determined to reverse it.
But it’s more than that their characters and personalities are so different. Their politics are diametrically opposed. Truman was a staunch New Dealer. He campaigned on the promise to continue and expand upon FDR’s legacy. He seems to have regarded his victory as as much of victory for FDR as for himself.
“It seemed to have been a terrific political upset when you read the papers here in this country,” Truman would write in response to a letter of congratulations from Winston Churchill. “Really it was not---it was merely a continuation of the policies which had been in effect for the last sixteen years and the policies that the people wanted.”
He wanted universal health care---Trump’s promising to replace Obamacare with something better that he doesn’t define but he’ll sign Paul Ryan’s budget which will end it and Medicare, to boot---and one important issue on which he was bolder than Roosevelt---although far from enough bolder in the eyes of liberals like Hubert Humphrey---was civil rights.
Hardly needs saying that a candidate promising to deport millions, ban Muslims from entering the country, let the cops stop and frisk black people at will and whim, punish women who make the “wrong” choices regarding their own health and bodies, and defend the religious liberty of Right Wing Evangelicals to discriminate against LGBT people and who’s chosen a misogynist and homophobic bigot as his running mate is not much concerned with civil rights.
This is where I would like to stop. It’s where I’d planned to stop. With my point made that any comparisons, personal and political, between Trump and Truman work towards Trump’s detriment, to say the least. And I would leave it there, but…
I keep thinking back to that quote from Mencken I put at the end of Part One and to another one from McCullough’s Truman:
A special study drawn up by the Republican Policy Committee would conclude, in essence, that the Republicans had only themselves to blame. They had “muffed” their best chance in sixteen years to win the Presidency and keep control of Congress. The fault was mainly with the Dewey strategy and the Dewey performance, his “aloofness,” speeches “high above the voters’ heads,” the mistake of swallowing the Democratic propaganda.” Dewey, said the report, had been drugged by the polls, and thus “sacrificed the initiative.” Truman’s hard-hitting assault on the 80th Congress, “however unprincipled and demagogic,” had been “brilliant” since it had enabled him to “divert the battle” away from his own and his party’s record. “He succeeded in arousing public indignation…”
And my heart sank a little when I read this:
Two days later, on June 14, at Los Angeles, an estimated1 million people packed both sides of his parade route from yjr railroad station to the Ambassador Hotel. "They clung to the roofs of building, jammed windows and fire escapes and crowded five deep along the sidewalk," reported the los Angeles Times. It was the first visit to the city by a President in thirteen years.
Los Angeles, said Truman with a grin that night at the Press Club, was quite a whistle-stop.
End of Part Two. Part Three to follow soon. Click on the link for Part One: M*A*S*H, Captain Harry S Truman, a soldier's lesson in foot care, and the election.