Last fall, when I wasn’t obsessing over the terrifying prospect of a second term for Donald Trump, I sought refuge in wading through an exhaustive biography of former President Harry Truman, Weird, huh? Even more oddly, before long, I was deep into a second book on the 33rd president.
At first, I rationalized that I was seeking solace by immersing myself in a supposedly simpler era, like watching black-and-white films from the ‘40s as an antidote to our 5G world. Of course, nostalgia for back when is not only misplaced but, in the wrong mind, can be dangerous (See “Trump, Donald.”).
More recently, however, I have come to see a lot of resonance in President Truman’s narrative and that of his most recent successor, President Joe Biden. Yes, I know that, given the nation’s current disunity and great crises, the presidencies of Abe Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt have been repeatedly invoked at the onset of Mr. Biden’s presidency.
But consider Mr. Truman: a plain-speaking man from ordinary roots who persevered through personal and political defeats with strong-willed independence, determination to get things done, and a documented habit of treating most everyone with notable decency. (Decades after he left the presidency, long-time White House functionaries still recalled Mr. Truman and his wife Bess as simply the nicest occupants among the many they had served.)
Mr. Truman was the “accidental president.” A last-minute choice for vice president on President Roosevelt’s ticket in 1944, he suddenly became president when FDR died 82 days into his fourth term. He was so out of the loop that he had not even been told that the United States had an atomic bomb in the works.
Nonetheless, in just his first months as president, he successfully faced one momentous challenge after another—deciding to drop that bomb on Japan twice, overseeing the end of World War II in Europe and the Pacific, and contending with the Soviet Union at the onset of what became the Cold War.
Though often overlooked these days, Mr. Truman turned out to be one of the most consequential U.S. presidents of the 20th Century. He was instrumental in founding the United Nations and creating the basis for other global alliances that persist, launching the Berlin airlift, rebuilding starving Europe with the Marshall Plan, and fighting China to a tie in the Korean War.
Despite opposition from Congress, his administration guided the U.S. economy through significant post-war economic challenges. In 1948, he proposed the first comprehensive civil rights legislation and ordered racial integration of the military and federal agencies. He advocated for national health insurance.
This is not to deify Mr. Truman. Claims of corruption among certain associates dogged his presidency. Post-war inflation, goods shortages, and major coal, steel and rail strikes torpedoed his popularity. Nor is this an attempt to write a happy potential legacy for Mr. Biden in just the first days of his presidency.
And the parallels between the two presidents some 75 years apart are hardly exact. But recall the old saw (popularly attributed to Mark Twain), “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” No less than Mr. Truman, Mr. Biden comes into office with the nation in deep crisis and the need to end a global war, assert America’s world leadership, and transition the U.S. economy to a new footing—with plenty of Congressional opponents in his way.
As if that were not enough, Mr. Truman’s narrative does not suggest an easy political future ahead for the 46th president.
The Democrats lost Congress in the 1946 midterms for the first time since 1930. By the time the 1948 presidential election came around, Mr. Truman—facing New York Republican Thomas Dewey and Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond—was accorded little or no chance. Unbowed, the president took his case directly to voters in a 22,000-mile whistle-stop tour in which he spared little in attacking Republicans, prompting one supporter to cry out, “Give ’em hell, Harry.” His victory shocked the press and pundits.
Despite relief that Mr. Trump is no longer in power—though unfortunately not out of the picture—Mr. Biden is hardly enjoying a honeymoon. The GOP aims to whittle down his big relief package. But the president and Congressional Democrats already are moving fast to enact it without Republicans, using an arcane budget process. And if that leads to a direct showdown with the GOP—as it may well—Harry Truman’s old narrative just happens to provide the new president with a stick-to-your-guns playbook: “Give’em hell, Joe.”
Mr. Biden gave strong voice to that stance in his televised address Friday on the case for his relief plan. “I’d like to act and act fast,” he said, rightfully slamming the GOP’s plans as too little too late. “I’m going to help the American people hurting now.” Keep at it, Mr. President.
— ROBERT BENJAMIN
The writer is a former Baltimore Sun reporter, foreign correspondent and editor.