President George W. Bush may very well be today’s Harry Truman, but you wouldn’t guess it from a Newsweek cover story reminding us of how vilified old Harry was in the last years of his administration and how his reputation has since risen from the ashes.
So highly regarded is Truman these days that presidential candidates of both parties have pronounced themselves his virtual reincarnation, says the story, which then goes on to assess whether the candidates have the qualities deemed responsible for Truman’s comeback in popular opinion — his candor, his willingness to accept responsibility for his actions, and first and foremost, his courage.
The magazine ladles praise with one hand, slaps faces with the other, arrives at some peculiar conclusions and also at one inescapable conclusion: Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., demonstrated exceptional bravery as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam when he passed up a chance to return home five years earlier than he did. Sticking it out with his buddies, he paid a stiff price in pain and suffering. The story goes on to question McCain on lesser matters before taking up other acts of supposed courage, such as Hillary Clinton’s decision to stand by her man after the Monica Lewinsky disclosures.
Maybe I am missing something, but I don’t get it that continuing to live in the White House with husband Bill required any more strength of character than leaving him.
What the story most outlandishly refuses to do is accept the right-before-your-eyes parallel between Truman and Bush. Truman was unpopular for a variety of reasons, but mainly because of the war in Korea. Bush is also unpopular for a variety of reasons, but mainly because of the war in Iraq. Truman, the story says, made "the tough calls, and history has rewarded him for it," while arguing in meagerly qualified words that Bush’s resolve in Iraq is unrealistic, foolhardy and stubborn.
But, of course, Truman was seen as unrealistic, foolhardy and stubborn during his tenure as president. Some thought his administration mismanaged the Korean War and some say to this day that it was a mistake, even if we know it kept millions of people out of Communist slavery and diminished the power that would otherwise have gone to the still-dangerous North Korea. Is it utterly inconceivable to the story’s writers that Bush’s policies of fighting back against terrorism will some day be recognized as being as crucial to world freedom as Truman’s policies were for containing communism, or that we might see how the Iraqi war was simultaneously a tough call and a wise call?
The Truman lesson is that perspectives change as events unfold and the emotions of the moment dissipate — distance can make the heart grow fonder. Bush certainly has his faults. Truman certainly had his. But at Bush’s core, just as at Truman’s, there is a virtue that Newsweek correctly recognized in Truman, even if critics including Newsweek are loath to recognize it in Bush. The man has political courage. It’s a virtue that may yet be shown as having been vital to America’s interests, and that may cause future generations to look back on him with kind thoughts.
Examiner columnist Jay Ambrose is a former editor of two daily newspapers. He may be reached at SpeaktoJay@aol.com