Sunday, January 4, 2015

As the old saying goes

"The more things change, the more they stay the same." I just finished reading David McCullough's massive biography of Harry S. Truman, the 33rd president of the United States. I had the same reaction to the Truman biography as I did to the biography of Andrew Jackson a year or two ago: the only things that change in politics are the names of the players.

Truman is probably best remembered now for the saying "the buck stops here," meaning it was up to the President to take responsibility for anything happening in his administration. Picked by the Democratic Party to be the vice presidential candidate in 1944, Truman became President when Franklin Delano Roosevelt died less than 3 months after being sworn in for a 4th term. Truman got tapped for the slot because everyone close to Roosevelt was convinced FDR was not going to live much longer and Truman seemed like the only possible candidate that (a) was semi-competent, (b) Roosevelt would accept, and (c) might be willing to take the job. Roosevelt's third term VP, Henry Wallace, was widely admired but viewed as too much of a pacifist and isolationist to deal realistically with threats like Germany and Japan.

Truman, a second term Senator from Missouri, didn't particularly want the job. He was good friends with John Nance Garner, who was Roosevelt's first vice president, and had heard Garner's thoughts on the frustrations of being vice president many times. Garner was responsible for the famous description as the office of vice president "not being worth a bucket of warm piss." Still, when party leaders approached Truman, he couldn't say no. Truman had impressed both fellow legislators and the general public as chairman of the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program. We were obviously heading into World War II at the time Truman pushed for investigating national preparedness programs and defense contractors; it didn't take the committee long to find numerous examples of fraud and waste. His relentlessness in holding contractors responsible raised his public profile. It also demonstrated there was more to Truman than people who didn't know him well assumed.

A small digression: one thing that is worth noting about the Truman committee is that when they found fraud, people actually wound up going to jail. The hearings had real consequences, something that no longer seems to hold true today.

In any case, Truman's image when he arrived in the Senate was that he was a tool of the Pendergast machine and therefore probably thoroughly corrupt. The Pendergast family had run Kansas City politics for several generations, they were also linked to organized crime and vice -- the Pendergast money originated with saloons and brothels built at the end of the 19th century. Truman was indeed a product of that machine but he was also that rarity, a specimen so rare that the term is practically an oxymoron, an honest politician. He could not be bought. In an era and an environment that encouraged graft, he refused kickbacks. Early in his political career as a county  judge, which at the time was the equivalent of a county supervisor or commissioner, Truman pushed for several public works programs (construction of a new courthouse in Independence, improved highways in the county) that could have proven financially lucrative both for him and the Pendergasts. He flatly rejected any thing that would have suggested he or members of his family were benefiting from the projects. So why did the Pendergasts back him when he was so clean compared to the typical politician? Probably because they had figured out that you always knew where you stood with Truman. If he said he was going to do something, he did, and if he said he couldn't support something, you knew that was true, too. He wasn't going to make promises he didn't think he could keep.

In any case, Truman was first elected to the Senate in 1934. He became known as a reliable party man -- he could be counted on to support the President's various New Deal programs -- but also as someone who could work across party lines. He made friends on both sides of the aisle despite the skepticism with which he was initially viewed. Re-elected in 1940, if it hadn't been for World War II he probably would have had a respectable if not particularly high profile Senate career. As it was, when Roosevelt died in April 1945, Truman found himself filling an office he had never aspired to.

Even worse, he entered the office about as unprepared as it was possible to be. Roosevelt, depsite his poor health, had never bothered to have a substantive meeting with Truman. According to McCullough they'd met perhaps two times following the election. Each meeting had fallen more into the category of photo opportunity than actual meeting and neither had lasted long. Truman walked away from each meeting feeling, as he noted in letters to Bess, terrified that Roosevelt was not going to live much longer. The President was in such poor health that he had difficulty holding a coffee cup without spilling it. He could put on a good front for the press, but in private it was obvious how quickly he was deteriorating.

Thus, when Roosevelt died, Truman found himself having to learn on the fly -- the war was in its final months (although no one could be sure of that), decisions had to be made about the use of the atomic bomb, Truman had to meet with Stalin and Churchill, and at the same time he had to deal with a White House staff and an administration that resented the hell out of the fact that Truman was now President. Several cabinet members, persons who knew Truman only by his reputation as being part of the Pendergast machine, were openly uncooperative. In a sane world, he would have fired them. As it was, with the war still in progress and the country in mourning for Roosevelt, Truman decided the appearance of a smooth transition was more important than getting rid of a few people who were hard to work with. It was not until he was elected to the presidency in his own right in 1948 that Truman felt free to do a thorough housecleaning.

Anyway, before my comments on this massive book turn into a post that's equally massive, the reason I say that the more things change, the more they stay the same, Truman had all the same headaches Andrew Jackson did over 100 years before and that Barack Obama is having now: the political opponents who are for something until the President supports it, too, and then suddenly it's the worst idea on the planet and is going to destroy democracy as we know it. The conspiracy theorists who are convinced the President is planning a dictatorship or is going to sell the country out -- Obama has the tinfoil hat types who are convinced he was born in Kenya and is a secret Muslim plotting to establish a caliphate; Truman had to deal with the anti-Communist hysteria that saw the Red Menace as a credible threat and were convinced the government was staffed with Stalinists. There were the elitist snobs, the people who were quite vocal about the way the Trumans brought down the tone of the White House, who mocked Margaret Truman's attempts at a career as a professional singer, and who sneered at Truman himself as being a "failed haberdasher." It was interesting to (again) see the parallels.

Truman himself loved history. He occasionally said that if he had had the opportunity to go to college, he would have liked to have been a history teacher. When he ordered a complete restoration of the White House (a project begun after Margaret's piano went through the floor), he was adamant that the result should be a building that was historically accurate. (The Truman restoration was a gut job to end all gut jobs; not only were the first two floors of the structure completely removed, the project involved excavating multiple new basement levels, all without changing the exterior.) He had to be aware that vilification came with the job, but he probably was a little naive about just how it would feel to be on the receiving end. In any case, having been elected to one term on his own merits, he decided that was enough. He announced early in 1952 that he would not run again and began planning his return to Independence.

One of the more interesting bits in this book was Truman's departure from the White House. I had never pictured Dwight Eisenhower as being a vindictive, small-minded petty bastard but apparently he was. He and Mamie were openly rude to the Trumans when the time for the transition. This was another case of the more things change, the more they stay the same. When Bill Clinton left the White House, his administration reached out to George W. Bush and his incoming administration to try to ensure a smooth transition. The Bush team was invited to briefings, given background information, and ignored it all -- and less than a year later, having scoffed at all the Clinton briefings, on September 11 they got to deal with the aftermath of an extremely preventable tragedy. In defense of Bush, it does appear the scoffing and dismissal were more by Bush's minions than by Bush himself; the tragedy is that early in his administration Bush relied way too much on those minions. G. W. and Laura never personally snubbed the Clintons the way Eisenhowers did the Trumans.

In Eisenhower's case, he ignored Truman's offers of meetings to share intelligence, refused invitations for him and Mamie to tour the White House to see the living quarters and meet the staff, and even (and this has to be the ultimate in being an ill-mannered prick) refused to step into the White House on Inauguration Day to have the traditional light lunch with the President and First Lady before riding together to the Capitol for the swearing-in ceremony. Instead, the Eisenhowers sat in the car until the Trumans came out. Truman viewed this as an insult to Bess, not just him, and seethed about it for years. Whatever Eisenhower's intent, it certainly was a remarkably small-minded, mean way to behave.

So would I recommend this book to anyone else? Good question. Like all of McCullough's books, it's thoroughly researched and has extensive end notes and bibliography. It is not, however, as readable as Mornings on Horseback (biography of Theodore Roosevelt) or A Path Between the Seas (history of the Panama Canal). It's as though McCullough had so much information to work with he couldn't figure out how to cull some of it. This is one case where a better choice by the author might have been to do it as a two-volume work: Truman before the presidency, and Truman as President and then in retirement. So much happened during his presidency -- the atomic bomb, the Marshall Plan, the Korean War, seeing all the "experts" proved spectacularly wrong when Truman beat Dewey in 1948 -- that it could easily have been a book by itself.

On the other hand,by packing it all into one book McCullough ensured his readers that not only would readers learn a tremendous amount about Truman, they'd also give their arm muscles a good workout. Definitely not a fast or an easy read, but for anyone interested in politics and the Presidency, well worth the effort.


  1. Wise people do not get into politics.

  2. Too many books on my list to add this one but an excellent review. thank you.


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