Sunday, January 18, 2009

Comparing Bush and Truman

To follow up his final press conference, President Bush decided to give a final farewell speech a couple of days later. But instead of building up his legacy as intended, it seemed to only give further ammunition to critics like Maureen Dowd who wrote a scathing article The Long, Lame Goodbye.

“You may not agree with some of the tough decisions I have made,” he said Thursday night. “But I hope you can agree that I was willing to make the tough decisions.”

Actually, no. His decisions have been, for the most part, disastrous. If he’d paid as much attention to facts as fitness, 9/11, Iraq, the drowning of New Orleans, the deterioration in Afghanistan and the financial deregulation orgy could have been prevented.

Even so, those who still support Bush insist that he will someday be looked upon favorably just like Harry Truman is today despite also having low popularity numbers during his time in office. Are they on to something or is this a desperate attempt to rescue the legacy of a president who has been labeled by many as one of the worst in modern times?

Since many of us are not old enough to remember Truman’s presidency and we have examined Bush under the microscope of not only the print media but 24-hour cable news and the Internet, it may be hard to give a totally fair comparison between the two men. But we can try.

A sampling of scholar surveys through the years puts Truman solidly in the top 10 presidents of all time. So how do we explain a president who had such popularity problems being rated so highly today?

Truman certainly had both domestic and foreign policy difficulties in his second term (especially with the unpopular Korean War) that led to much of his lack of popularity. But it is generally acknowledged that his first term performance in office taking over after Franklin D. Roosevelt's death at the end of World War II was by itself enough to secure his high historical ranking.

Many have admired Truman for his folksy and plain speaking demeanor making famous the quotation,
The Buck Stops Here. And unlike Bush with a Harvard MBA, Truman never even graduated from college. The story of how he was selected as FDR’s running mate — little more than back room political negotiations — is astounding when you consider that we were still in World War II and Roosevelt's health was known to be failing (at least by those on the inside of his administration).

But what made his performance all the more amazing was that FDR didn’t involve Truman in much of anything while he was living, not even disclosing anything on the
Manhattan Project which was to produce the world’s first nuclear weapon. Shortly after assuming office, Truman then had to decide on if or how to use the atomic bomb on Japan.

Among other legacies of Truman’s presidency:

- The founding of the United Nations

- The
Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after WWII

- The
Truman Doctrine and creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to contain communism

- The establishment of a Jewish state (Israel) in Palestine

- The beginning of desegregation of the US armed forces

Perhaps the most controversial events during his presidency were the Korean War along with his firing of General Douglas MacArthur.

"I fired him [MacArthur] because he wouldn't respect the authority of the President... I didn't fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that's not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail."
—Harry S. Truman, quoted in Time magazine

Although MacArthur was clearly insubordinate in pressing for an expanded war against China, he was a WWII hero and Truman's firing of him resulted in (at the time) widespread condemnation, plummeting approval ratings and even calls for his impeachment.

So when Bush supporters simply refer to both Bush and Truman having low approval numbers when leaving office, they gloss over the significant accomplishments of Truman during those most difficult years following FDR’s death that have resulted in his high ratings by historians.

Will Bush receive significantly more favorable ratings from future historians as claimed by some? In my view, the only way this will happen is if the results of the war in Iraq turn out to be worth all of the blood and treasure that has been sacrificed there. But until then, there is the current popular view that in response to the major crisis of his presidency, the 9/11 attacks, Bush chose to wage war in Iraq, a country that did not attack us while neglecting those in Afghanistan who did. That in addition to leaving office with an economy in dire straits along with the memory of neglected Katrina victims may well result in future historians concluding that Bush’s all time low approval ratings were fully justified. Only time will tell.

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