Jim de Bree: Revisiting Harry Truman

Jim de Bree
Jim de Bree

Last month I drove across country. When I was in Missouri I drove near the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library. Although I did not have time to stop and visit, I have been thinking about President Truman since then.

President Truman was contemporaneously viewed by many as someone not qualified to be president. He succeeded Franklin Roosevelt, who arguably was one of the most popular and powerful presidents in our history.

While Roosevelt mastered the media, projecting both charisma and leadership, Truman was a novice at dealing with the press. According to a PBS documentary, Truman was viewed as intemperate, touchy, profane and quick to provide simplistic answers to complex issues.

The reality is that Truman turned out to be rather shrewd and mastered many tough challenges. He was the one who made the decision to use the atom bomb to end World War II. He fought the communists in a post-war environment. He dealt with numerous difficult domestic issues as the U.S. economy shifted from a wartime footing to one of peace.

Truman’s relationship with the press was contentious. The right wing media of the day included the Chicago Tribune (who famously published the erroneous “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline), the Hearst newspapers and Henry Luce’s Time magazine. While Truman made numerous disparaging remarks about the press, he had sufficient self-reliance to move his agenda forward rather than dwell on the media.

In July 1948, when he was running for re-election, his approval rating stood at 36 percent. Nevertheless he received the Democratic Party’s nomination for president. During his acceptance speech, he used his presidential powers to convene a special session of Congress. At the time the Republicans controlled both houses of Congress.

A month earlier the Republican Party adopted its platform for the 1948 election which included, among other items: civil rights legislation, the expansion of Social Security and the creation of a national health care program.

Truman challenged the Republicans to enact the legislation called for in their platform. The Republicans were divided in terms of how to respond. Senator Arthur Vandenberg led a group of Republicans seeking to pass the legislation in order to widen the party’s appeal. However, Senate Leader Robert Taft prevented a vote on the legislation.

Truman called the Republicans’ bluff and campaigned against the “Do-Nothing 80th Congress.” He narrowly won re-election in November 1948.

Mr. Truman’s character can best be summed up by two famous quotes:

“The buck stops here.”

“It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

Sixty-five years after his presidency, we tend to look at Truman with more favor than he received from his contemporaries.

Truman’s situation in 1948 has many parallels today.

President Trump’s current approval ratings are similar to Truman’s in July 1948. The PBS description of the public perception of President Truman is similar to that of our current president. Both presidents experienced contentious relationships with the media. National health care is still a major issue.

While the circumstances may be similar, the two presidents differ markedly in their demeanor and aptitude.

Mr. Truman was accountable for his own actions and took responsibility for them regardless of the popularity of his position. This past week, Mr. Trump emphatically stated that he doesn’t own the health care issue.

Unlike President Truman, Mr. Trump’s ego won’t allow others to get credit for things that go well. He loves to take credit and dispense blame. Unlike President Truman, Mr. Trump fails to recognize that there is no “i” in the word “team.”

Mr. Truman got over the media’s disdain for him and went about the business of running the country. Conversely, Mr. Trump obsesses on the media. Why should the president care about CNN’s ratings? Why would a president make such disgusting remarks about Mika Brzezinski and Megyn Kelly?

Mr. Truman championed policies that ensured the existence of a strong middle class in our post-war economy. Mr. Trump champions tax policies that undermine the middle class and favor the wealthy.

Mr. Truman understood the issues of his day and clearly articulated his case. He was not right all the time, but he thoughtfully considered the issues. Mr. Trump deals with issues on a more emotional level.

Some may argue that the media is not being fair to President Trump. However, Mr. Trump sets himself up as the perfect foil for the media. When challenged, he cannot keep his facts straight. He makes outrageous claims about stupid stuff like the size of the inaugural crowd.

Based on the first six months of Mr. Trump’s presidency, it is hard to fathom that people 65 years from now will view him as favorably as Harry Truman is viewed today.

Jim de Bree is a retired CPA who resides in Valencia.

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