Bush and Truman (continued)

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Harvard Law Prof. Bill Stuntz has sent me an E-mail stimulating more thoughts about the similarities between George W. Bush and Harry Truman, as follows.

For most of their lives, Truman and Bush never wanted to become president nor expected to. Truman was never an important figure in national affairs until the creation of the Truman Committee in the early 1940s, when he was in his late 50s. He was never close to Roosevelt and never trusted him (nor should he have: After supporting the New Deal, Truman was opposed by Roosevelt's forces in the 1940 Senate Democratic primary). At the 1944 party convention, Truman was prepared to nominate Jimmy Byrnes for VP and had to be talked out of it by Roosevelt himself, on the phone. He must have known then that he could become president any day (Roosevelt was obviously in ghastly health, with blood pressure of something like 300/150, a condition my internist tells me would prompt immediate hospitalization today).

Bush never thought he would become president or even an elective politician until after his father's defeat in 1992. It is inconceivable he would have run for governor of Texas in 1994 if his father had won a second term (Jeb, I think, would probably have run for governor of Florida). Then, sometime in 1992–93, Bush decided that God had put it in his way to be president and that he had better do the best job he could to prepare himself. I spent some time with Bush and Karl Rove in 1993–94, and that is definitely the impression I got.

More similarities: Both Truman and Bush were not particularly successful in business. Truman was happy to run for Jackson County commissioner because the office conferred immunity to debt. He needed the salary, too. Indeed, he had no money (and no pension) when he retired from the presidency and had to write his memoirs for money (as did Eisenhower, but Eisenhower got Congress to treat his advance as a capital gain, and Truman didn't). Bush, as we know, was not particularly successful in business–not as successful as his father was (just as Truman was far less successful than his rich grandfathers, whose money his feckless father dribbled away). Just as Truman relied on public-sector jobs for his living, so Bush was enriched by the city of Arlington's decision to help finance the ballpark in Arlington.

Both Truman and Bush, though regarded as intellectual lightweights, in fact had good educations. Truman was an autodidact, a student of history, and a serious pianist–his piano teacher was a student of Paderewski's. Bush was exposed to serious learning, though he did not seem to take it seriously, at Andover, Yale, and Harvard Business School. Still, he was on a very fast track (the SAT scores peaked in 1963, the year his high school class took them), and he kept up. Bush's reading lists show him today as something of an autodidact, trying to learn about subjects he knows little about.

Both men, when they saw they could be president, worked hard to prepare themselves for a job they had not sought for most of their lives. Truman stayed up late at night reading Roosevelt's dispatches, trying to figure out what FDR was up to. Bush, as governor and president, has prepared himself diligently for subjects he felt it important to master. I remember asking him when he was running for governor why he had acquired such a deep, on-the-ground understanding of education, tort reform, and his other major measures. He said, "If I didn't, why would anyone take me seriously?"

Yet Truman and Bush both encountered as president challenges they could not have anticipated. After his first cabinet meeting, Truman was taken aside by Secretary of War Henry Stimson, who said there was this major project he should know something about. That was how Truman learned about the atomic bomb (which, as I recall, was costing us about 2 percent of gross domestic product). Bush was faced with the challenge of September 11.

You could argue that their common decision-making style was almost forced on them by circumstances–or, at least, that if they didn't have that style they would have been quick and visible failures. Truman had to make the peace in Europe and figure out how to end the war with Japan (with the possibility of 1 million casualties staring him in the face). Bush had to determine how to pursue the war on Islamist terrorism. Both won hugely high approval ratings when they seemed to face up to the challenge. Both had ratings far lower when troubles loomed and war efforts seemed to be unavailing–Truman's far lower than Bush's, around 25 percent versus around 45 percent.

All the other presidents but one of my lifetime had wanted to be president for a long time. Eisenhower surely anticipated the possibility by 1945 and pursued it shrewdly thereafter. Kennedy was forced by his father to run. Johnson and Nixon seethed with ambition. So did Jimmy Carter. Only Gerald Ford was an accidental president–and perhaps a quick decision maker like Truman and Bush (e.g., the Nixon pardon). Reagan, in my view (see my obituary piece on him in U.S. News), was an ambitious man all his life, who always saw that it was to his advantage to be seen as an ordinary guy rather than the intellectual he was. Bush 41 was ambitious too: I remember wondering in the late 1970s why a guy who had spent only brief times in a series of resume jobs (and never fully mastered any of them to judge by his pre-presidential autobiography) thought he was entitled to serious consideration as a candidate for president. But he got there. Bill Clinton is an obvious case: He clearly had wanted to be president since he was a small child.

Stuntz points out another similarity, which I noted also in my 1990 book Our Country. Truman and Bush both won by carrying the South and much of the West and Midwest, while running weakest in the Northeast. Both were scorned by Ivy League elitists. And that didn't bother either of them very much at all. And both, as John Lewis Gaddis argues, reshaped American foreign policy in a fundamental way, although Gaddis gives credit to Roosevelt as well as Truman for the reshaping.