Daily Archives: 21 November 2008

Truman: The WYSIWYG President

From: The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War, by David Halberstam (Hyperion, 2007), pp. 203-205:

Truman was an easy man to underestimate. He lacked one of the great strengths of the Roosevelt persona: to a nation accustomed to a presidential voice that had been warm, confident, aristocratic, and altogether seductive, Truman’s voice was a distinct disappointment, flat and tinny, with little emotional intimacy. His speeches were uninspiring—blunt and oddly without nuance. Some advisers suggested that Truman try to speak more like Roosevelt, and make his speeches more conversational, but he was shrewd enough to know that that was the wrong path, that he could not emulate the great master. All he could do was be himself and hope that the American people would not judge him for what he was not. He was aware that the comparisons with Roosevelt would be unfavorable at first, and they were. In the beginning, he was an easy target for political jokes, and there was often a cruel edge to them. “To err is Truman,” said the acid-tongued Martha Taft, wife of Robert Taft, a key Republican senator. “I’m just mild about Harry” went another. A favorite of the moment, wrote the columnist Doris Fleeson, was “I wonder what Truman would do if he were alive.” “Poor Harry Truman. And poor people of the United States,” wrote Richard Strout, in The New Republic.

Truman became president when he was sixty years old. He was a late bloomer of acceptable but not overweening ambition. His people were farmers and he had done his share of farming as a boy, and in 1948 he had delighted Midwest crowds—his support there was one of the keys to his surprise victory—by telling them that he could seed a 160-acre wheat field “without leaving a skip.” He had plowed the old-fashioned way, he added—four Missouri mules, not one of these fancy tractors. In his senior year of high school, through no fault of their own, the Trumans’ farm had failed and all chance of a college education for Harry had disappeared. He tried for West Point, his one shot at a free education, but was turned down because of his poor eyesight. (He was blind as a mole, he noted later in life.) His one entrepreneurial attempt, to run a haberdashery shop, lasted a mere three years and ended in failure. He spent much of his time trying to prove to his ever dubious mother-in-law, who came from one of Independence’s first families, that he was worthy of the hand of her daughter, that Bess Wallace had not married down. Here success eluded him; he proved better at making the case for his intrinsic value to millions of fellow Americans than to Madge Gates Wallace. He arrived in the Senate in 1934, in his fiftieth year, relatively late in life, as the sparklingly honest representative of the unusually corrupt political machine of Boss Tom Pendergast. It was as if his special assignment within the Pendergast organization had always been to bring it some degree of honor and legitimacy. He was a small-town man with small-town virtues. For much of his life, he wore a triple-band gold Mason’s ring and a small lapel button that showed he had served in World War I. He was comfortable in the world of small-town lodges, and was a member of the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Moose, and the Elks.

But a life filled with a curious blend of disappointments and relatively few successes (at least on the scale of most men who attain the presidency) had created its own set of strengths. “I liked what I saw. He was direct, unpretentious, clear thinking and forceful,” General Omar Bradley wrote after their first meetings. He was not much given to self-deception and there was little artifice to him. He was hardworking, and always well prepared. He did not waste other people’s time, nor did he want them to waste his. In contrast to Roosevelt (who loved to play games with people even when he didn’t need to), Truman was comparatively simple and significantly less manipulative. What you saw, by and large, was what you got. George Marshall had always been uneasy with Roosevelt and some of the games he played with his top advisers. There had been one unfortunate moment when the president had tried verbal intimacy with Marshall, a man who thought the more formal the relationship with a politician, the straighter it was likely to be. Roosevelt called him by his first name, the first step in what was clearly to be a process of seduction. He immediately understood his own mistake by the coolness it generated. It was General or General Marshall thereafter, not George. Marshall for that reason clearly preferred Truman. There were fewer political land mines around.

In the Senate Truman had been all too aware of his own limitations. A great many of his colleagues were better educated, wealthier, and more successful; they knew worlds of privilege and sophistication he could only guess at. As one of his high school friends, Charlie Ross, later a star reporter for the St. Louis Post Dispatch and eventually his press secretary, said of him, “He came to the Senate, I believe, with a definite inferiority complex. He was a better man than he knew.” America, at the time he assumed the presidency, was changing rapidly, becoming infinitely more meritocratic, driven by powerful egalitarian forces let loose by World War II and new political benefits that went with them, like the GI Bill, which allowed anyone who had been in the military to go to college. Truman, by contrast, was a product of a far less egalitarian America, which had existed at the turn of the century, one where talented men and women did not always attain careers that reflected their abilities and their ambition.

I am afraid we are now back to being a far less egalitarian America, at least by this measure. It has been two decades (1988–2008) since we had anyone but an Ivy Leaguer as president—and we just elected another one.

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Filed under biography, democracy, education, U.S., war