Seven Years Later

Seven years after Pearl Harbor, two years after the defeat of fascism, at the start of the Cold War, a reporter wrote this about the newly-elected President:

He was out to get all the soft-heads, and he got them triumphantly. Unhampered by anything resembling a coherent body of ideas, he was ready to believe up to the extreme limits of human credulity. [...] If there had been any formidable body of cannibals in the country he would have promised to provide them with free missionaries fattened at the taxpayers' expense. [...] We can only hope that he will improve as he goes on. Unhappily, experience teaches that no man improves much after 60, and that after 65 most of them deteriorate in a really alarming manner. I could give an autobiographical example, but refrain on the advice of counsel.

That's from H.L. Mencken's dispatch the day after 61 year-old Harry S. Truman won the 1948 election. At the height of his career, Mencken was more influential than Brian Williams, Katie Couric and Charlie Gibson, combined.

In 1948, if some politician's shill had the gall to ask that Mencken to treat his candidate with deference, he would have received the same treatment that Mencken gave the newly-elected President. Today, seven years after another terrible event in our country, the craven, cowering national press meekly defers when asked.

This isn't a partisan point. I don't care who asks the press to defer. I just care that they do.


Great and poignant quote.

Truman is such an interesting charecter, would have been ripped to shreds by the press today and was by the press then. Like Sarah Palin he would have been seen as too backwoods and unqualified, like Barack Obama he would have been accused of promising too much without a way to actually deliver. Like George Bush he was almost universally hated by the time he left office.

If he was alive today he would be ripped apart by both the conservative and liberal establishments but I could still see him reaching out to the public in a way the media wouldn't understand.

So I guess I don't know where I stand. I want the media to ask tuff questions, not to defer. What I don't want is for them to make the assumptions I see. That there are tests that they create a candidate must jump through. Beliefs they hold that the candidates must adhere to.

We seem to get all or nothing at all. We either get a press that rips people apart or launches nothing but softballs. We get a press that is biased beyond belief or so disconnected they ask no questions at all.

Truman was an interesting study.

On the Palin comparision: Though he was high-school educated, he was perhaps one of the most intelligent and well-read Presidents of the 20th century. He was an intense student of history, constantly using it as a guide for his actions in office. But he was a terrible speaker in formal settings. So, though he did have a folksy way, I see a couple of differences there.

On your rip apart vs softball comment: Since the media has decided that every little detail of a politicians personal life is now part of their world, there's been a real blurring of personalities and issues. They rip apart personal lives and tread softly on campaign issues.

Obviously there is a huge difference between the two in many ways and Truman was a well read man. But with no college degree, a failed business (whether it was his own fault or not) and his basic appointment as the "Senator from Pendergast" probably would not be seen as the ideal candidate for the Vice Presidency in modern terms.

As for the media, I am always tickled by the insistence that they pay too little attention to the issues. If we had an honest and sober debate of fiscal policy I don't know how many people would stay in. I watched every Democratic debate and I felt they talked too much about Iraq and Health Care. I personally would have loved a deep discussion about tech policy and education but honestly I don't know that most people care about the nuance of policy. The old joke about legislation and sausage and not wanting to know how either is made comes to mind.

You're probably right. Truman's a great example of someone who grew in the job, but you need some raw material to grow.

I agree on "The Issues" (pronounced in a sober, serious voice) -- people don't want to listen to the little details of policy debates. All I'm asking is that we don't spend every day on trivia.

I think we tend to look back on the presidency with nostalgia, see the giants and forget all those inbetween. I really love Truman and I love David McCullough's biography of him that really helped set in motion our modern thoughts about the man, though it overreaches in some places.

He wasn't what you would call a textbook example of what you would want in a president and did not get to it in what many would call the "proper way" either. With that said he provided a down to Earth, educated, yes, but still somewhat simplistic vision of things. He had plenty of failures too, the Korean War was not our finest moment and under his watch we did set in motion our future in Indochina (Vietnam).

I just wonder if he would even have a shot of making it half as far today as he did then.

I hear you on the trivial, it gets absurd and annoying and I dislike having very complex issues distorted in such simple ways for political attacks. That is the way of things.

I don't think Truman would have a shot at being elected Senator today, much less VP. It's not just his education. As you pointed out earlier, his whole path to power was a product of the boss system that doesn't exist today.

I agree that McCullough's bio was a little to rah-rah, but when you think about everything that happened while he was President, it's surprising things weren't worse.

For example, it's not clear to me that Korea was completely his mistake. MacArthur ran the war as a bit of a free agent, and his decision to take the war far into the North, which is what turned it into a quagmire, was mostly Mac's miscalculation. To Truman's credit, he finally relieved him of duty, though he should have done it sooner.

The MacArthur case was interesting because, as you rightly point out, he was a simple guy, and he trusted and gave great loyalty to subordinates. When his judgment was right, (for example, George Marshall, whom he rightly idolized) he didn't have a problem. Tom Clark, his AG and later Supreme Court justice, who Truman later (correctly) called "a dumb son-of-a-bitch", is a good example of where his loyalty trumped good judgment.