A Species Yet Not Extinct

Republicans regret, or say they do, that there are no more "Truman Democrats" --Democrats as hardheaded about national security as was the president who formulated the cold-war policy of containment. That regret must amuse the gangly, soft-spoken 15-term congressman from Truman country--western Missouri, where they pronounce it "Massouruh." If Democrats capture the House in November, Ike Skelton will become chairman of the Armed Services Committee. The Republicans might wish there were one fewer Truman Democrat.

Skelton, two of whose three sons are in the military, comes from a military family. His father lied about his age in order to get into the Navy, where he served on the first battleship Missouri, which had been part of the Great White Fleet that Teddy Roosevelt sent around the world to advertise America's emergence as a world power. Skelton's mother was the great-great-granddaughter of Squire Boone who, with his uncle Daniel, fought in August 1782 in northwestern Kentucky at Bryan's Station. That, not Yorktown, was, Skelton playfully insists, the last battle of the Revolutionary War.

His father, who met Truman--then a county commissioner--in 1928, brought his son to Truman's 1949 Inauguration. Framed on Skelton's office wall is a telegram from Skelton's father congratulating Truman for firing Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

Like his father, Skelton speaks what he considers the truth to power. On Sept. 4, 2002, he wrote to President Bush, warning of "civil unrest and even anarchy" in the aftermath of an invasion of Iraq:

"Planning for the occupation of Germany and Japan--two economically viable, technologically sophisticated nations--took place well in advance of the end of the war. The extreme difficulty of occupying Iraq ... argues both for careful consideration of the benefits and risks of undertaking military action and for detailed advanced occupation planning if such military action is approved."

On March 18, 2003, the day before the war began, he again wrote to the president, listing "things that could go wrong," including: "Stabilization and reconstruction prove more difficult than expected. U.S. troop requirements approach 200,000 ... This puts pressure on troop rotations, reservists, their families and employers and requires a dramatic increase in end-strength."

Today some people say more--perhaps 50,000 more--troops should be sent to Iraq. Skelton says: "Oh, we have the troops. But are they ready? No." Two months ago he wrote to the president that "two thirds of the [Army's] brigade combat teams in our operating force are unready." He says 40 percent of the Army and Marine Corps ground equipment is in Afghanistan or Iraq; so, many troops outside those theaters cannot train properly. Last week The New York Times reported that of active Army units, "so many are deployed or only recently returned from combat duty that only two or three combat brigades--perhaps 7,000 to 10,000 troops--are fully ready to respond in case of unexpected crises, according to a senior Army general."

Skelton's first-year roommate in law school had been stationed in Korea when that war erupted and U.S. forces were driven down the peninsula into the Pusan perimeter. Skelton says, "I don't want to see that again." About the idea, recently emanating from Baghdad's Green Zone, of surrounding the city's 60-mile circumference with trenches and berms, Skelton says: "That's nuts."

A voracious reader, especially of military history (a book on the 1943 Battle of Tarawa is on his desk), Skelton says the current Battle of Baghdad will be the Midway, El Alamein or Stalingrad of this war--decisive, one way or another. Nevertheless, Skelton says, reducing the number of troops in Iraq "may be a risk we have to take." He understands the danger that U.S. military assistance can have an infantilizing effect on Iraq, and he favors redeploying a brigade from Iraq to Kuwait as a way of telling the Iraqi leadership that they do not have an unlimited call on American patience.

Skelton's office also contains other evidence of his deep Democratic roots. One is a framed ticket to the 1960 Democratic convention, where he met his future wife of 44 years, who died last year. There also is a copy of the portrait of President Roosevelt that was being painted when he died on April 12, 1945, at the Warm Springs, Ga., facility where FDR struggled with the effects of polio. Skelton arrived in Warm Springs two years later, as a teenager, for treatment of his arms, which were crippled by polio, thereby ending his dream of going to West Point.

If Skelton, 74, becomes chairman, his agenda will be: "Oversight, oversight, oversight!" Expect the Armed Services Committee to resemble a highly successful Senate committee created in 1941 for oversight of defense spending during World War II. It was known by its chairman's name: the Truman Committee.