A Tale of Two Harrys

Harry Reid and Harry Truman were both the right men for the job at the right time.

By + More

Give 'em hell, Harry. 

And this time I mean Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic leader who just gave Senate Repubicans a blast of hell. How richly they deserved it after shooting down three of President Obama's key judiciary nominations. After months of thought and debate, he struck down the filibuster rules – just like that.

End of story, except that his nemesis Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, feels like the stuffed turkey at Thanksgiving.

The comparison with Harry S. Truman, the president who succeeded Franklin D. Roosevelt and then succeeded on his own terms, is inescapable. The two bespectacled Harrys, well, they're anything but slick. They both refused to lose close elections in 1948 and in 2010. They're not tall, glib or handsome. But they mean what they say. They do what they promise. Most important, they hang tough.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

Members of Reid's Democratic caucus may not love his habit of hanging up the phone without saying good-bye. But Reid does what Truman probably never did: He tells them he loves them, saying "Love you, man" from time to time on the phone. He might even speak his fondness on the floor to a departing colleague, such as John Kerry. He loves Obama, for sure – and now Reid, who walks the Capitol's halls like the Senate sheriff, is getting a lot of love back from the White House and the Democratic party for having the guts to get rid of the long-abused filibuster rules for presidential nominees (except those for the Supreme Court).

The antiquated filibuster and cloture rules have allowed the minority Republicans to stand shamelessly in the way of the president's own people time after time. The Senate has prized its ability to thwart or slow the nation's business in molasses by requiring at least 60 votes to pass legislation and White House appointees. Good-bye to that, at least when it comes to judges and other nominees.

If not for Reid, the Obama presidency would be even more washed up to shore. Reid refused to surrender to the Republican government shutdown and debt ceiling crises. Thus, he has provided two of the few bright moments for Obama’s fifth year in office. The president would be wise to trust Reid as his principal strategist on the Hill, since he knows how to win. After all, Reid used to police the halls as a Capitol Police officer when he was in law school. The place feels like a small town to him. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Truman was a down-home, no-nonsense Missouri senator before Roosevelt tapped him to be his vice president. He played a tough game of cards and minced no words. A former haberdasher and jack of all trades who had served in the Army during World War I, he understood life working on the land and in the small town. His has the perfect name: Independence.

Nobody thought much of him when the moon, stars and planets fell on him, how he described the day Roosevelt died. Like Reid, he had an unprepossessing appearance. But by quietly doing his job with an intense focus, a moral compass and a straight spine, Harry Truman became his own man in office. By firing the flamboyant General Douglas MacArthur for insubordination, Truman showed political courage. He also asked the unpopular former president, Herbert Hoover, to direct humanitarian aid to war-ravaged Europe. Against the advice of his favorite Cabinet member, George Marshall, he played an instrumental role in establishing the state of Israel. 

Finally, the buck stopped at Truman’s desk, famously – for better or worse. One of his best hours for the history books – and he loved history dearly, going back to the Romans – was integrating the armed forces.

Missouri and Nevada are not the coolest states to hail from. New York and California they are not. But somehow they sent two men – plain speakers, not beautiful people – to Washington when they were really needed. With the two Harrys, what you see is what you get.

  • Read Susan Milligan: Boycott Stores That Open for Black Friday on Thanksgiving
  • Read Stephanie Slade: The D.C. Metro Shows Why Washington Needs Uber
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad