All of a sudden, it seems like everybody is fighting over Harry Truman. Fifty three years out of office and 34 years in his grave, the feisty Democratic president who was widely reviled in his own era is now the object of a tug of war between Bush Republicans and moderate Democrats.
Both camps seek to lay claim to his legacy. With terrorists seeking to destroy us, with Iraq continuing to defy the prewar cakewalk predictions, and with polarized Washington seemingly incapable of forging a foreign policy consensus, both camps are asking the question, WWHD? (what would Harry do?), and citing Truman words and deeds that support their arguments.
The selective pillaging of historical figures is a favorite American parlor game, anyway; one can find, in the prolific writings of Thomas Jefferson, for example, enough opinions to support virtually any position, in part because Jefferson (as well as many other designated Great Men) said and did so many things, often contradictory, often reacting to the exigencies of the moment. Truman was no exception.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seem to have launched the Truman show when she declared last December, in the Washington Post, that the Bush administration's efforts abroad are "consistent with the proud tradition of American foreign policy, especially such recent presidents as Harry Truman." President Bush followed up during a speech May 27 at West Point, by invoking Truman 17 times (I'm sure it was complete coincidence that he was citing a guy who was plagued during his tenure by low poll ratings), and contending that the Bush mission of spreading democracy is consistent with what Harry did back in 1947.
That was the year when Truman announced U.S. military aid for Greece and Turkey, both of which were under threat from communism; Bush cited this passage from a Truman speech: "It must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressure."
Amidst our skirmishings with the Soviet Union in those early Cold War days, said Bush, "fortunately we had a president named Harry Truman who recognized the threat, took bold action to confront it, and laid the foundation for freedom's victory in the Cold War."
And that's when the battle over Truman was joined. Within days of Bush's speech, he was challenged by Peter Beinart -- author of a new book, The Good Fight, which urges Democrats to get tough on national security by rediscovering their inner Truman. He argued on June 1 in the Washington Post that Bush was hijacking Truman for his own political purposes, by ignoring all the stuff that Truman said about the importance of American humility and the need to work with multinational organizations; hence, this Truman line: "We all have to recognize, no matter how great our strength, that we must deny ourselves the license to do always as we please."
That in turn provoked conservatives. On June 14, foreign policy commentator Max Boot acknowledged in the Los Angeles Times that, yes, it's true that Truman did push for the 1949 creation of multinational NATO and, yes, he did preside over the founding of the United Nations, and, yes, he did work through the U.N. before sending troops to Korea in 1950...but Truman did tell his secretary of state, in a letter, that if the U.N. had balked on the latter, "we would have had to go into Korea alone." Boot was seconded by political analyst Michael Barone, who said last week in U.S. News and World Report that the Truman-backed Marshall Plan for rebuilding Europe was a unilateral initiative (just like Bush's unilateral initiatives).
Anyway, this game can feature endless rebuttals and re-rebuttals. The Boot camp, for instance, seems to overlook the fact that conservatives in the late '40s actually attacked the Marshall Plan, because Truman allowed the Europeans to draft the details of that economic aid program, and because Truman was essentially giving our money (up to five percent of our national income, a share unthinkable today) to foreign governments that included high-ranking socialists, and with few strings attached. Not to mention the fact that this president, whom Bush is now lauding as a tough-minded hawk, was the same guy who, in his time, was mercilessly attacked by the right for allegedly being soft on communism.
Beinart, in his book, clearly wants to keep Truman for his fellow Democrats, hoping that they will resurrect Truman's hawkish liberalism and thereby win the confidence of '06 and '08 voters who still seem skeptical about the party's national security bona fides. But perhaps the final wrinkle is that the liberal wing of the party doesn't want to play the WWHD game; as liberal activist leader Robert Borosage complains, "the current rage in center-right Democratic circles is to resuscitate Harry Truman," and commit the party to a policy of policing the world.
What all this Truman-mania suggests is that today's politicians and thinkers seem bent on cherry-picking the past because they lack creative thoughts about the future. If Harry could hear these partisans skirmishing over his legacy, he might well say of them what he once said of the political reporters who covered him:
"Not one of them has enough sense to pound sand in a rathole.''
Meanwhile, I wonder what Harry Truman would have thought of this:
Today, on the floor of the U.S. House, Republicans are pushing their politically conceived pro-war resolution that calls for all members of Congress to stay the course, support the troops, and accept the premise that Iraq is a central front in the global terror war. In the debate today, various congressional Republicans were dutifully finding ways to link the 9/11 attacks to Saddam's Iraq. The ultimate aim is to force Democrats to either vote yes (and thereby accept Bush's frame on the Iraq conflict), or vote no (and thereby presumably be exposed as a cut-and-running defeatist).
Caveat for the GOP: there is the inconvenient truth that the 9/11 Commission long ago cleared Saddam on the 9/11 charge; as the members concluded, Saddam had no "collaborative relationship" with al Qaeda. So the Republicans are clearly finessing factual reality.
I suppose that even plain-speakin' Harry Truman might also have fudged the facts once in awhile. But I do wonder what he would have said if his enemies in what he called "the do-nothing Republican Congress" had attempted to paint his fellow Democrats as potential cowards, the way that House Speaker Dennis Hastert did earlier today.
Credit Hastert with the most...creative...political use of the 9/11 tragedy: "America’s response started high above a corn field in rural Pennsylvania. Brave men and women armed with nothing more than boiling water and dinner forks and broken bottles stood up as Americans always do when our freedom is in peril and they struck back....We in this Congress must show the same steely resolve as those men and women on United flight 93."
The message from give-em-hell Denny was clear: Any Democrat who opposes the GOP Iraq resolution is not only denying the 9/11-Iraq connection, but is also clearly betraying the people who died on that plane.
Gee, these Republicans sure don't care about making nice. On some level, Harry Truman would probably understand that. After all, he's the guy who once said, "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog."