Brass in the White House


Presidency: If Wesley Clark were to win, he would be the first Democratic general in the job since Andrew Jackson.

October 03, 2003|By Joseph R.L. Sterne | Joseph R.L. Sterne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Up in the celestial precincts where the buck stops somewhat higher than the U.S. presidency, Harry S. Truman must be ruminating over Gen. Wesley K. Clark's decision to run for the White House.

Ruminating? That might be too neutral a word for the scrappy man from Missouri. As was the case about most things in the universe, Truman had strong feelings about generals and especially generals adventurous enough to puff themselves into politics. But as a guy who liked to shoot fast from the hip, our 29th president had his contradictions - some of them quite vivid.

Take his long feud with Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 1947, when Democrats were worried that Truman was likely to be defeated in running for a full term the following year, some members of his party sized up Ike as an unbeatable alternative and Truman as a dead duck. So much for what HST later termed "smart-aleck" Democrats. Yet among the latter, if truth be served, was none other than President Truman himself. He told the victorious World War II crusader in Europe that he was willing to step aside and might even be willing to run for vice president on an Eisenhower ticket.

FOR THE RECORD - In the Sun Journal on Friday, Harry S. Truman was incorrectly described as the 29th of the 43 U.S. presidents. In fact, he was the 33rd president.

According to Truman's account, Ike rebuffed the idea and told him why military men shouldn't be in politics. Harry took him at his word. The rest, as they say, is history. Four years later Eisenhower revealed himself as a Republican, refused hospitality at the White House when Truman was still in residence and then never invited his predecessor to the executive mansion during his eight-year tenancy.

The Trumanesque slow burn was monumental. He told author Merle Miller that Ike was "one of those generals who believed he deserved to be president ... but I don't think he was ever president."

If Truman disliked Ike, he loathed Gen. Douglas MacArthur, a favorite target for his expletives. In the most politically charged act of his presidency, he fired MacArthur as commander of allied forces in Korea in 1951 after the general he described as "Mr. Prima Donna, Brass Hat, Five Star MacArthur" publicly defied the administration's efforts to limit the war.

"I fired him because he wouldn't respect the authority of the president," he told Miller in the "oral biography," Plain Speaking. "That's the answer to that. I didn't fire him because he was a dumb [s.o.b], although he was, but that's not against the law for generals."

Back in Washington after getting the ax, MacArthur mesmerized Congress with his "old soldiers never die" oration. Legislators, especially China Lobby Republicans, were reduced to tears. "I thought it was a bunch of damn [b.s.]," HST told his inner circle at the White House.

Among those in attendance was another general - George C. Marshall - whom Truman revered extravagantly and did not hesitate to move from chairman of the joint chiefs to be secretary of state.

"He [Marshall] takes his place at the head of the great commanders of history," said Truman. "He was a man you could count on to be truthful in every way. The more I see and talk to him, the more I can be certain he is the great one of the age ... a tower of strength and common sense."

Other contemporary generals high on the Truman approval list were Omar Bradley, Marshall's successor as armed services chief; and Matthew Ridgway, MacArthur's replacement in Korea. In making these judgments of men with stars on their shoulders, the president was not just indulging passions of the moment. He was delving deep into his own military experience and his vast appreciation of American history.

In talking with Miller, he had no qualms about trashing all the American generals in the War of 1812 except Andrew Jackson (a soldier who made it to the White House).

Then, in assessing the Mexican War of the 1840s, he had nothing but contempt for Gen. Winfield Scott, "Ole Fuss and Feathers," who "just sat on his ass" losing five months before taking Mexico City. Scott's rival, Zachary Taylor, got a "pretty good" rating from Truman as a general but flunked as a president "who was no damn good in office."

In the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln had more trouble with his generals than any president in history. Truman took particular exception to Gens. George McClellan and John Pope, both bombastic fellows who never lived up to their hyped-up press clippings. Truman admired the generalship of Ulysses S. Grant, who, like Taylor, made it to the White House only to prove himself a failure in politics.

In commenting about generals in general, Truman said there ought to be a way "to keep them out of politics altogether." This reflected his view that West Point gave its students "a narrow view of things" and failed "to teach them anything at all about understanding people."

Yet he loved Marshall and Bradley and Robert E. Lee ("one of the kindest men who ever lived") and perhaps, up there above the clouds, he is withholding judgment on General Clark, a Rhodes Scholar as well as a West Pointer.

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