Herb Strentz makes the case that Donald Trump is not a “modern-day Harry Truman.” -promoted by Laura Belin
Can’t pass up an advance opportunity to refute Donald Trump campaign rhetoric that may be headed our way. Here’s a chance to counter the fear, “A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots.”
The line about the built-in advantage of falsehood is attributed to several people.
Jonathan Swift in 1710: “Falsehood flies and truth comes limping after it.”
Others to whom a version is attributed include Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain and Winston Churchill.
All question whether truth can ever catch up — a condition exacerbated today by online messages going “viral.”
So, let us try for an edge on anticipated folly, perhaps like “Donald Trump is a modern-day Harry Truman.”
Here is what may be in store for us.
Trump’s election in 2016, like Truman’s in 1948, was stunning. “The people have spoken.”
Trump, like Truman, is not afraid to express his opinion, as Harry did in two intemperate notes in 1950. One, perhaps reflecting Truman’s resentment of “brass hats,” was critical of “the public relations machine” of the United States Marine Corps; the other a nasty note to Paul Hume, a Washington Post music critic, who panned a vocal recital by Harry’s daughter, Margaret.
A letter to a member of Congress dismissing the Marine Corps as “the Navy’s police force” came when Marines were fighting and dying in Korea and was promptly and widely condemned. Truman profusely apologized and made peace with the USMC establishment, but plainly could not lessen the pain suffered by families who had lost sons and husbands in the war.
Trump fires people who dare to question his actions and behavior. Well, didn’t Truman fire General Douglas MacArthur from his command during the Korean War?
Let’s take these in order:
In 1948, Truman was widely predicted to lose to Thomas Dewey. Truman beat Dewey by 2.2 million votes. In 2016, Trump lost to Hillary Clinton by 2.9 million votes but won by virtue of the electoral college. Four other presidents had been elected by the electoral college despite losing the popular vote. Those four lost the popular vote by a total of 710,825 (76 percent of which came in George W. Bush’s 543,816 loss to Al Gore in 2000), meaning Trump lost by more than four times the previous combined count.
Truman wrote letters, as Trump tweets, but almost all of Truman’s letters were by a fellow named Harry Truman — who used his own stamps on such letters. Most letters were not from President Truman, because Truman distinguished between the Office of the President and the person in the office — a distinction lost upon many.
A lot of people upset with Truman drew the distinction, however, telling him he would be replaced by someone worthy of the office. That is my take on distinguishing the person holding the office from the office itself, having read thousands of such letters at the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, and being impressed by Truman’s reverence of the Office of the President. (Critics of Trump sometimes are faulted for not respecting the office, but they may be driven by Trump’s total lack of respect for it himself.)
When he fired the popular MacArthur in April 1951, Truman’s approval rating was lower than 30 percent. But MacArthur had made public statements contrary to U.S. policy and in violation of orders. The military Joint Chiefs of Staff supported the firing. A great American of the 20th century, General George Marshall, said MacArthur should have been fired earlier. General Omar Bradley told a Senate hearing MacArthur would “involve us in the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy.”
Some points will not be raised by those likening Trump to Truman.
When the U.S entered World War I in 1917, that was six years after Truman had left the Missouri National Guard. The 5-foot-8, 150-pound, 33-year-old Harry Truman had awful vision and a mother and sister to support and his status as a farmer exempted him from service.
In the first major American offensive of WWI, “Captain Harry” commanded the 194 soldiers of Battery D, 2nd Battalion 129th Field Artillery.
Before Truman began his political career, he was a partner in a men’s clothing store that could have filed for bankruptcy but did not. He sought to make good on all debts and did on most of them — so others would not lose their money. Trump’s bankruptcy filings — four or six depending upon how they are grouped — were business, not personal, bankruptcies, but still fall far short of how Truman coped with his financial stress.
Instead of always finding someone else to blame, Truman was faithful to his vow, “The buck stops here.”
Herb Strentz was dean of the Drake School of Journalism from 1975 to 1988 and professor there until retirement in 2004. He was executive secretary of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council from its founding in 1976 to 2000.
Top image: Former President Harry S. Truman (left) holds a copy of the famous Chicago Daily Tribune paper declaring he had lost the 1948 election. Photo available via Wikimedia Commons.