Victor Davis Hanson: Trump, Truman and the paradox of presidential morality

In some sense, Donald Trump was replaying the role of the unpopular tenure of loudmouth Democrat Harry Truman (president, 1945–53). “Give ’em Hell” Harry came into office following the death of Franklin Roosevelt. He miraculously won the 1948 election against all expert opinion and polls. Truman left office in January 1953 widely hated. Indeed, his final approval ratings (32 percent) were the lowest of any departing president, except for those of Richard Nixon.

The outsider Truman had always been immersed in scandal, owing to his deep ties to the corrupt Kansas City political machine, and Truman’s patron, the unsavory boss Tom Pendergast. When the novice Vice President Truman took office after Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, he knew little about the grand strategy of World War II – and nothing about the ongoing atomic bomb project. For the next seven-plus years, Truman shocked – and successfully led – the country.

Over the objections of many in his cabinet, Truman ignored critics and ordered the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan to end the war. Against the advice of most of the State Department, he recognized the new state of Israel. He offended Roosevelt holdovers by breaking with wartime ally the Soviet Union and chartering the foundations of Cold War communist containment. Many in the Pentagon opposed his racial integration of the armed forces. National security advisors counseled against sending troops to save South Korea.

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Liberals opposed fellow Democrat Truman’s creation of the Central Intelligence Agency. Truman was widely loathed for firing controversial five-star general and American hero Douglas MacArthur. There were often widespread calls in the press for Truman to resign. Impeachment was often mentioned. Truman, in short, did things other presidents had not dared to do.

Truman occasionally swore. He had nightly drinks. He played poker with cronies. And he shocked aides and the public with his vulgarity and crass attacks on political enemies. Truman cheaply compared 1948 presidential opponent Thomas Dewey to Hitler, and attacked him as a supposed pawn of bigots and war profiteers. Truman hyperbolically claimed a Republican victory in 1948 would threaten America’s very liberty.

In the pre-Twitter age, Truman could never keep his mouth shut: “My choice early in life was either to be a piano-player in a w****house or a politician. And to tell the truth, there’s hardly any difference.” When a reviewer for the Washington Post trashed Truman’s daughter’s concert performance, Truman threatened him with physical violence. “It seems to me that you are a frustrated old man who wishes he could have been successful,” Truman wrote in a letter to critic Paul Hume. “Someday I hope to meet you. When that happens, you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!” Such outbursts were Trumpian to the core.

Truman trashed national icons, in a way that often exceeded Trump’s smears. He deprecated the military leaders who had just won World War II. He was childishly vulgar in his dismissal of MacArthur: “I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a b**** 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.” The latter was an astounding charge in an age of Bradley, Eisenhower, LeMay, Patton, and Ridgway, and admirals such as Halsey, King, Nimitz, and Spruance.

It took a half-century for historians to concede that the mercurial and often adolescent Truman had solid accomplishments, especially in foreign affairs – in part because Truman conveyed a sense that he did not much care for staying in Washington, a city in which he was not invested, did not like, and would quickly leave at the end of his tenure. Even Truman’s crassness eventually was appreciated as integral to his image of a “plain speaking” and “the Buck Stops Here” decisive leader.

Had Truman access to Twitter, or had he a Kansas City federal prosecutor to hound him for his checkered past, he could have self-destructed in a flurry of ad hominem electronic outbursts. Yet Truman proved largely successful because of what he did, and in spite of what he said.

It is (perhaps regrettably) not evident that personal sins equate to failed presidencies. Character lapses are certainly not to be encouraged, but in the Machiavellian landscape of global politics they do not preclude wise leadership either.

Values are absolute and transcend time and place. But the notion of public versus personal, and private sin versus public guilt, changes constantly. In the past, pragmatism guided us about sin and politicians: a man’s demons were his own unless they reached a point of impairing his public career or shaming his office in the eyes of the public. Two nightly martinis at home were okay. Four to five at a restaurant would inevitably become a matter of public concern.

“Damn” in public was tolerated within limits, the F-word never was. Visiting a mistress was regrettable. But, then, who knew the possible private incompatibility or unhappiness within anyone’s marriage? In contrast, sexually cavorting in the Oval Office was inexcusable. Private adultery was a matter of guilt to be judged by God. Sex in the workplace was shameful and to be condemned by the living.

One of the great ironies of our age is that we have somehow managed to become far more sanctimonious than previous generations – and yet far more immoral by traditional standards as well. We can obsess over an unartful presidential comment, but snore through the systematic destruction of the manufacturing basis of an entire state or ignore warlike violence on the streets of Chicago.

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Trump’s presidency is too brief to yet be judged absolutely. His personal foibles are too embedded within current political and media hatred to be assessed dispassionately. Too many assessments too quickly have been made about Trump, without much historical context and usually with too much passion.

Neither is it yet clear that Trump is a bad man or a good president, or vice versa, or neither or both. But if the past is sometimes a guide to the present, Trump in theory certainly could become a more effective president than would have been his likely more circumspect Republican primary rivals, while perhaps demonstrating that he is far more uncouth. The paradox again raises the question, when any one man can change the lives of 330 million, what exactly is presidential morality after all – private and personal sins, or the transgressions that affect millions of lives for the worse?

Adapted excerpt from "The Case for Trump" by Victor Davis Hanson. Copyright © 2019. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, a division of PBG Publishing, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.