Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Give 'em hell, Harry

"I never give them hell. I just tell the truth and they think it is hell!" - Harry S. Truman

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It's in today's chaotic geo- and domestic political and social climate that I wish we had a guy like Harry Truman around.

No-nonsense. Intelligent. Steeped in American and world history. A salt-of-the-earth kind of guy.

We need someone to give 'em hell. And Truman would've been just the guy.

My admiration of Harry Truman began pretty early, as a sophomore in high school. I entered my first political race, running against Jenny Franks - the prettiest and most popular girl in school - for junior class treasurer. I had just learned about Truman's remarkable "Miracle in '48" victory during the presidential election - how no one thought he could win.

Well, no one but him anyway.

Seeing how Truman beat the odds and came out victorious inspired me, and helped me believe that I could get elected over a two-year incumbent.

And, just like with Truman, I pulled it off.

Of course, as a Democrat, I also look back on Truman's administration as a source of some of the most sparkling progressive ideas of the 20th century. The Fair Deal, civil rights, and - as a senator - his Truman Committee saving the American taxpayer billions of dollars by making sure our money was being spent properly.

Where is today's Truman Committee?

The more I learn, the more I value Truman's insight and wisdom. I'm finishing up Merle Miller's excellent oral biography of Truman, "Plain Speaking." In it, Miller interviews Truman for a television series that never happened, but used the word-by-word transcript as the basis for a book. In it, we hear Truman as he talked, and though he was always succinct, he had a lot to say.

What really struck me was his thought on history - "There is nothing new in the world except the history you don't know." What he meant was, human nature doesn't change. If something unexpected pops up, well, that just means you haven't read your history enough.

He's right, of course. It's amazing how well Truman could peg someone's character and personality. Take Nixon. Truman had him as a crook and liar in the early 1950s, before Nixon ever became Vice President. It didn't help that Nixon called Truman a "communist" and "traitor"

One of Truman's only regrets was that he never had a chance to run against Nixon and "lick him good." I'm sorry that he never had a chance, too, because maybe we could have saved our nation a great big headache.

Truman's foresight on issues like civil rights (he was pro-civil rights even when he knew he would lose all the Dixiecrat support in the South), integration of the armed forces, minimum wage and Social Security issues (he was an adamant supporter of Roosevelt's policies), and the toxic influence of money and the military in politics was ahead of his time.

Truman's belief that the Presidency was an office to be "used for a while," a "tool" that each man used to progress the idea of democracy, floored me.

"When you get to be President, there are all those things, the honrs, the twenty-one-gun salutes, all those things, you have to remember it isn't for you," Truman said. "It's for the Presidency, and you've got to keep yourself separate from that in your mind. If you can't keep the two separate, yourself and Presidency, you're in all kinds of trouble."

Got it?

Now compare those thoughts with the ideas Nixon and the current Bush have about the office. It's a difference that's seen when you compare the Man from Missouri - a farmer and failed businessman - from a silver-spoon rich guy who pretends he's a hick.

There are all the popular characterizations of Truman - "The Buck Stops Here" and the "Give 'em Hell, Harry" shouts during the 1948 campaign, but it's the principles and the knowledge of how American history shapes the politics of today that I admire.

He was a stubborn cuss, of course, and he spoke his mind readily, for good or ill.

But who was in office during the most impactful events of the 20th century, and guided it with more wisdom and principle?

No one, I would argue. Kennedy was in office too short a time, and an argument could be made for Roosevelt - he certainly was in office long enough.

But my political hero will always be Harry Truman, mostly because I wish there were still politicians like him hanging around Washington.

I don't trust people that don't read. If you don't even occasionally have a book in your hand, learning about the wide world that lives beyond your own damn skull, then we won't have a lot to talk about.

I think it would have been fun to talk to Harry Truman.

And I think he would have had a lot to say about today's American political climate.

But, as he said, all we need to do is look at history. It's all right there, every bit of it.

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