They all want to be Harry Truman. Hillary Clinton invokes his iconic sign (THE BUCK STOPS HERE) to call for better treatment of wounded veterans. Barack Obama reminds us that Truman was the first politician bold enough to call for universal health care. Rudy Giuliani notes that Truman was unpopular in his day, but if he hadn't stood up to the Soviets in the late 1940s, asks Giuliani, "Who knows how much longer the cold war would have gone on?"
There are some eternal verities about politics—chiefly, that most politicians are (surprise, surprise) carefully calculating and keenly attuned to what is possible. There are some eternal truths about history, too. History has a habit of changing its mind. The case of the now sainted Truman, the Platonic presidential ideal of 2008, is an example of just this phenomenon. In 1953, when Truman left Washington for Independence, Mo., few were unhappy to see him go. His administration was accused of corruption and the Korean War was stalemated. Yet as the years passed, his stature grew. His candor stood in welcome contrast to the obfuscations of Vietnam- and Watergate-era Washington; the policy of containment stood the test of time, and his sense of responsibility—he really did believe the buck stopped with him—loomed large in an age of buck-passing. Love him or hate him, he made the tough calls, often courageously, and history has rewarded him for it.
Buffeted by war, unhappy with President Bush, many Americans—Democratic, Republican, independent—seem hungry for a Trumanesque figure, a truth-telling, bare-knuckled president who will give it to us straight. The question now is whether anybody in the 2008 field can measure up.
Americans say they want to see courage from their politicians. As the historian Michael Beschloss illustrates in his new book, "Presidential Courage," the greatest presidents were willing to risk their political careers to do the right thing for the country. Being courageous is usually hard to fake; voters, even apathetic ones, have a way of spotting phonies. But it is difficult to tell whether a candidate will make the hard choices until he or she actually becomes president—by which time, it's too late.
Still, voters can find hints and clues. Though the most successful politicians tend to be cautious, poll-driven and consultant-coached, they have to make choices that test their moral fortitude. All the front runners have taken risks—if not in the political arena, then in their personal lives. None of these contenders can be dismissed as purely expedient and opportunistic. It is worth remembering that Truman, the plain-spoken pillar of integrity described by Beschloss in the excerpt that follows, was widely seen—perhaps unfairly—as a machine pol and a hack before he became president. And it is worth considering that history shines on the brave presidents who were lucky enough to win—not the ones, like Lyndon Johnson, who dared greatly but lost.
By far the most dramatic profile in courage belongs to John McCain. As a prisoner of war in Hanoi, he was offered an early release by the North Vietnamese because his father was the commander of American forces in the Pacific. McCain chose to stay in prison—and endure torture and privation for another five years. Running for president in 2000, McCain was a refreshing and rare politician who was willing to talk on the record for hours to reporters riding the "Straight Talk Express." Because McCain himself has suffered and endured for his country, he has more moral standing to ask for sacrifice than other politicians.
But for many months, McCain has appeared to cater to the Republican establishment, hoping to inherit the Bush fund-raising apparatus and placate conservatives who do not trust him on issues of taxes and immigration. His efforts have not paid off: he is not the front runner in fund-raising or in national polls. And he has seemed strangely dispirited along the way, more petulant than determined in last week's first Republican debate. That may be because he senses that his unflagging support for a highly unpopular war in Iraq could end his political career, but it may be because he is not, at heart, a politician. He is a warrior.
The lawmaker most often credited with courage by voters in the latest NEWSWEEK Poll is Giuliani, cited by 48 percent (42 percent named McCain, 43 percent cited Hillary Clinton). Giuliani rarely misses a chance to remind voters that he was the hero of 9/11, calming New Yorkers as well as the rest of the country with his steady resolve. He was also a tough-minded mayor who reduced crime in the city. But as a presidential candidate he has played to old passions by suggesting that it was a matter of states' rights to fly the Confederate flag over the Alabama capitol. (Six years ago McCain called a similar pander to Old Dixie in South Carolina the lowest moment in his political life.)
A former conservative Republican governing in liberal Massachusetts, Mitt Romney showed his independence by wielding vetoes. "I've done it hundreds of times," Romney boasted in the debate. "I can't wait to get my hands on Washington's budget." But as a presidential candidate, he's been accused of flip-flopping on social issues—abandoning a pro-choice, pro-gay-rights stance in Massachusetts to attack abortion and gay marriage. (At last week's debate, Romney pointed out that Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush had also switched their stances on abortion.)
All the candidates will use their life stories to show a sense of moral purpose. After partying at Stanford, Romney says, he found purpose on a Mormon mission to France and came back to finish college at Brigham Young. At Harvard Business School, Romney says he "didn't hang out much" with his schoolmate George W. Bush. "I was married at the time with two or three children," he told NEWSWEEK. Bush was a single guy in his " 'young and irresponsible' period ... I longed for the chance to get at the books and study and learn."
Hillary Clinton had a stark moral choice: whether to stay with her husband when President Clinton's philandering with Monica Lewinsky was exposed. Her decision to stand by him could not have been easy. But it's not the sort of moment that her campaign will want to feature in ads. Her aides have defended her refusal to apologize for her pro-war vote in the Senate in the fall of 2002 as a matter of principle. But it may be that she is reaching out to Red State voters who question the Democrats' toughness on foreign policy. (Ever calibrating her stand, last week she demanded that Congress reauthorize the war as of Oct. 11, the fifth anniversary of the original vote.)
Barack Obama was an early opponent of the war at a time when most Democrats were still with Bush. Favorably compared to Bobby Kennedy, Obama does have an air of authenticity—he writes his own books and seems to speak from the heart. Giving up a corporate job in Manhattan, he went to work in Chicago as a low-paid community organizer. He will take on liberal bloggers who criticize him as too centrist. But there is a something of the raging moderate about Obama: he never sticks his neck so far out that he can't pull it back in.
John Edwards has staked out the clearest position on the left. He has taken a political risk by vowing to raise taxes on the rich to help pay for universal health coverage. On the campaign trail, he flaunts a stand-up style. "You may not always agree with me," he says, "but you'll know where I stand." Edwards also has a personal story of facing adversity: the death of his teenage son, Wade, in a car crash in 1996 and the recent cancer recurrence of his wife, Elizabeth. But Edwards strikes some as a little slick, even (or especially) when he is talking about his family trials. As for his political courage, he is making a bet that old-style soak-the-rich populism can be a winner in this election cycle—though the recent flap over his $400 haircuts has not helped his common-man pitch.
What looks like courage in a politician may just be posturing or cold calculation. But at the same time, real courage is not worth much if it is unaccompanied by judgment and realism. George W. Bush may have thought he was following in the footsteps of Winston Churchill when he ordered the invasion of Iraq. But when things quickly turned sour, his show of resolve began to seem more foolhardy than wise. In the NEWSWEEK Poll, when asked about Bush's recent actions in Iraq, 30 percent saw them as a sign of political courage. But twice as many—62 percent—interpreted Bush's stay-the-course plan in Iraq as stubbornness. Courage is also about learning from—and facing up to—your mistakes.