Truman And The Man In The Mirror

Forty-four years ago, this magazine took a poll of 50 political writers about the likely outcome of the 1948 election. When the issue appeared, Clark Clifford, then an aide to Harry Truman, tried to hide NEWSWEEK under his coat. Truman discovered the magazine, saw that all 50 pundits were predicting Thomas E. Dewey to be the winner, and said, "I know every one of these 50 fellows. There isn't one of them has enough sense to pound sand in a rat hole."

I checked with some colleagues, and Harry's still right. Even today we'd try rags or Kleenex or something; not enough common sense for sand. The point is, why don't our candidates have the wit to say something this vivid when they're skewering the press? Truman wasn't an ace in the quip department, but at least he tried. Nowadays, even making a mild, nonsexual joke is seen as too risky. The press might turn it into a gaffe. The real mistake, of course, is to campaign scared of one's own shadow.

David McCullough's new best seller, "Truman," is George Bush's playbook for re-election, down to drawing a Dewey mustache on the smooth face of Bill Clinton. Forget that George and Barbara were big Dewey supporters at the time. For Bush, the Truman appeal goes beyond the Congress-bashing mechanics of the great '48 comeback. It's about the man the president thinks he sees when he's shaving.

Imagine Bush's excitement when he came across this quote in McCullough's book from one 1948 voter: "I kept reading about that Dewey fellow, and the more I read the more he reminded me of one of those slick ads trying to get money out of my pocket. Now Harry Truman, running around and yipping and falling all over his feet--I had the feeling he could understand the kind of fixes I get into."

This is a perfect facsimile of Bush's self-image. While his opponent is "slick," he's the guy who admits to an occasional case of the "yips" on the putting green. And from his childhood through the years in Texas and Washington, hadn't he always understood the "fixes" his friends and sons got into? As for regular voters down at the stock-car races, well, Bush understands 'em. Knows when to drop those g's. In fact, in his second term he's fixin' to get a fix on all the fixes they're in.

Bush's problem is that this self-image is totally at odds with his public image and his real lineage. "My father was a Missouri farmer politician. George Bush is a Connecticut elitist, "Truman's daughter, Margaret, said last week, stating what's obvious to everyone but Bush himself. When Truman said during the '48 campaign that "we must fight the privileged class," he was talking about Bush and his friends. In fact, Bush is really Dewey-heir to his brand of moderate Eastern Establishment Republicanism. You can take the man out of Greenwich, but even years of swearing loyalty to country music and right-wing preachers can't take Greenwich out of the man. In that sense, Bush's Truman impersonation is almost touchingly ludicrous. It's like Bill Clinton trying to run as Dwight D. Eisenhower.

While the sign reading THE BUCK stops HERE was a Truman gimmick, it says a little something about Bush's basic attitude toward presidential accountability that in 1989 he sent the old sign back into storage. Truman trashed the "Do Nothing" 80th Congress, which was controlled by Republicans. But he actually worked closely with Congress to create a bipartisan record of accomplishment that Bush can only envy. The Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine-now that's what you call a "New World Order." Domestically, Truman and Congress collaborated on landmark legislation to educate returning veterans. The fruits were considerable. Perhaps the biggest reason Truman won in 1948 was that the government managed to keep the economy humming right on through the election.

The other point that Bush missed was that Truman's second term was largely a failure, beset by an inconclusive Korean War and the symptoms of cronyism. In fact, the second term of every 20th-century president has been less successful than the first, from Woodrow Wilson's rigid internationalism, to Franklin Roosevelt's court-packing folly and New Deal failures, to Eisenhower's listlessness, to the scandals of Nixon and Reagan. Even if Bush won, he is hardly poised to break the streak.

In explaining Truman's historic victory, McCullough writes, "He had done it by being himself, never forgetting who he was. "Just by trying to run as Harry Truman, Bush is not being himself, frequently forgetting who he is. Even a rathole pundit can figure that one out.