Is Bush like Truman?


In the New Republic blog, Harvard Law Prof. Bill Stuntz argues that Bush makes appointments much as Harry Truman did. Bush appointed the superstar John Roberts and (in Stuntz's view) the mediocre Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court; Truman appointed superstars George Marshall and Dean Acheson and mediocrities like John Snyder, J. Howard McGrath, and all four of his Supreme Court appointees. He argues that Bush, like Truman, tends to be decisive and is willing if not eager to ignore expert opinion. Both in his view share a "governing style of a president who makes decisions easily but not always well, a president who has seen steep highs and deep lows, a president who trusts his intuitions even when he shouldn't."

An interesting point. I see it a bit differently. I think all four of Truman's Supreme Court appointments show a desire to reward those who were nice to him when he was an obscure first-term senator and was presumed to be a hack controlled by the corrupt Pendergast machine of Kansas City. This was evidently Franklin Roosevelt's view, since he supported Gov. Lloyd Stark over Truman in the 1940 Senate primary (Thomas Pendergast had been successfully prosecuted by Roosevelt's Justice Department). Truman narrowly won, with the endorsement of St. Louis boss Bob Hannegan and heavy support from black voters. The story is colorfully told in historian Robert Ferrell's Truman & Pendergast.

Truman paid his political debts. Two of his Supreme Court appointees served with him in the Senate in his first term: Republican Harold Burton (appointed in 1945 when there was only one other Republican on the court ) and Democrat Sherman Minton (appointed in 1949 after two justices in their 50s dropped dead over the summer). I'll bet they were two of the few senators who treated Truman with respect during his first term. His appointee as chief justice in 1946 was Fred Vinson, who served in the House during Truman's first Senate term and was appointed Treasury secretary when Truman cleaned out Roosevelt's Cabinet; Vinson was a regular at Truman's poker parties. The fourth appointment, in 1949, was of Tom Clark, whom Truman had earlier made attorney general. He was known as a friendly man who presumably did not patronize Truman.

Truman didn't forget black voters either. He established a Civil Rights Commission that came in with strong recommendations well ahead of their political time, and he desegregated the armed services. My sense from reading Truman biographies is that he didn't like blacks very much, but he felt strongly that they should be treated fairly. When Walter White of the NAACP told Truman that a South Carolina policeman had attacked and blinded a black veteran recently discharged from the Army, in biographer Robert Donovan's account, "Truman rose and said, 'My God. I had no idea it was as terrible as that. We've got to do something.' . . . Before the meeting he and [his assistant David] Niles had discussed the possibility of establishing a commission to study mob violence and civil rights, an idea that had been in the air since the race riots of 1943. Niles proposed it at the meeting. White said that Congress might not approve. Under pressure to take the initiative on civil rights regardless of Congress, Truman said he would create the body by executive order."

Sometimes the governing style of making decisions easily and trusting your intuitions produces good results, as Bill Stuntz readily concedes.