Then Again, Maybe He Is Like Truman

DANIEL BERGER

September 12, 1992|By DANIEL BERGER

How strange that President Bush wishes us to think him alatter-day Harry S Truman: the president of the mess in Washington, the sad sack who in 1952 dared not seek re-election.

Mr. Bush, Bill Clinton and other claimants to the mantle mean, of course, that other Harry S Truman: the comeback king, the underdog winner of 1948.

Memories pop up of ''Pour it on, Harry!'' ''Give it to 'em!'' (now fondly remembered as ''Give 'em hell'') as the doughty little campaigner took on the polls, the pundits, the big money and the defectors from his own party and beat them all.

Vice President Truman, Democrat, ascended to the presidency on the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, April 12, 1945. He was a little man in a big job.

In his first term, the United States dropped the atom bombs on Japan, concluded World War II, gave Marshall Plan aid to help Western Europe resurrect itself and Truman Doctrine aid to prevent Communist takeover in Greece, purged Soviet sympathizers from the U.S. government and adopted the policy of containing Soviet expansion throughout the world.

Yet he was still a little pol out of the Kansas City machine. Too easy-going. Corruption was spotted about the edges. Gov. Thomas E. Dewey, the Republican nominee, was ever so much more presidential.

Dewey ran as if he were the incumbent, Truman as the challenger. To drive the final stakes in Truman's coffin, the left formed the Progressive Party nominating former Vice President Henry A. Wallace for president. Southern Democrats (''Dixiecrats'') bolted the party over civil rights, nominated Gov. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, and qualified as the official Democratic Party in four Southern states. There was no place on the ballot to vote for Truman in Alabama.

There went the Democratic coalition created by Roosevelt in 1932. Truman didn't have a chance. Only he didn't know it. He launched the ''whistle-stop campaign'' by train. Only he thought he would win. No one was for Truman but the people. Wallace's half-million votes in New York threw the biggest state's electoral votes to Dewey. Thurmond carried Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina, which no Democrat could do without.

But Truman won, 303 electoral votes to Dewey's 189, 49.51 percent of the popular vote to Dewey's 45.12 percent. Every pundit ate crow on Wednesday. Hence the myth.

Which is why a Republican incumbent behind in the polls has conferred the Harry S Truman label on himself. While Democrats, remembering the Truman ''Fair Deal'' economic policies, claim squatters' rights on the Truman legacy.

But the consequence of winning was that Truman had to serve a second term, which was his first full term. He was eligible for a second of those, but by 1952 the country had had its fill of him.

In the second Truman term, China went Communist. North Korea invaded South Korea and the U.S. under the U.N. banner went to war to stop it. Sen. Joe McCarthy kept seeing Communists under the bed.

Scandal after scandal erupted in Washington, most of them petty by today's standards. There were ''five percenters'' selling government influence, officials getting deep freezers or mink coats for their wives from grateful businessmen, an air of cronyism and complacency. None of it was cabinet-level, as in the Republican Harding administration. But the president was thought to have turned a blind eye. The suspect person closest to Truman was his so-called military aide, Harry H. Vaughan, a crony and errand-runner given a uniform big enough for his tummy, a general's star and an office in the White House.

Some of these things had surfaced in the first term without preventing the miracle of '48. They dominated the second (or first full) term. Truman announced in early April he would not seek re-election for which he was eligible.

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, having kept the parties guessing since 1945, sought and won the Republican nomination and swept all before him. That included the witty and brainy Democrat, Gov. Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois. Ike crusaded against the mess in Washington. Even Stevenson admitted there was such a mess.

After inauguration, Eisenhower told confidants that he had only got into politics to rid the country of Truman and would not have run had he known Stevenson would be the Democrat. Nonetheless, that reluctant Republican ended 20 years of a Democratic presidency and began an era of normally Republican presidencies that has not ended.

Truman's reputation has climbed from that deep low of 1952, when almost no expert would say he had been a good president.

Particularly since the collapse of the Soviet empire, Truman's foreign policy seems to have been wise, prudent and prescient. The ''revisionist'' historians and polemicists who blamed Truman rather than Stalin for the Cold War have been betrayed by history. No one in Russia agrees with them.

Small wonder Truman's image looms now as a giant of history with whom George Bush would of course wish to be compared. But is Mr. Bush the Truman of '48 (of whom Democrats habitually boast) or the Truman of '52, (whom Republicans normally prefer to remember)?

That Harry S Truman of '52 was the incumbent just too lackluster to deserve another term. And why did Mr. Bush bring this comparison up in the first place?

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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