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Jewish World Review / Sept. 9, 1998 / 18 Elul, 5758

Don Feder

Don Feder We're still just wild about Harry

ON SEPTEMBER 17, 1948, Harry Truman began a whistle-stop tour in his long-shot bid for re-election. It's comforting to know that we once had a man like Truman in the White House.

Everyone expected the "little man" from Missouri to lose. Franklin Roosevelt's last legacy was called an accident of history. After 16 years of the New Deal, the nation was ready for change.

Give' em hell Harry
In Thomas Dewey and Earl Warren, governors of New York and California, Republicans had the dream ticket. Henry Wallace and Strom Thurman would split the Democratic vote on the left and right.

A Roper Poll of Sept. 9 showed Truman trailing Dewey by 13 points. In its October 12 issue, Newsweek surveyed the nation's 50 leading pundits on who would win the election -- all picked Dewey.

But Truman had beaten the odds before -- as an artillery captain in France during World War I and when he ran for re-election to the Senate in 1940 and almost everyone (including FDR) deserted him.

As David McCullough relates in his biography, in 1948, Truman campaigned like no other incumbent in history, riding the rails 21,928 miles in 33 days. He gave 275 speeches (as many as 16 a day) doing everything from mammoth rallies to 5-minute talks from the rear platform of the "Magellan" at places like Dexter, Iowa.

Truman told audiences, "I'm either for something or against it, and you know it." He attacked the "do-nothing" Republican Congress and defended his efforts to stop Stalin's march across Europe with the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan.

People recognized him as one of their own -- a humble man who believed in timeless virtues. Words like integrity and loyalty defined Harry Truman.

He may have been the only honest man to come out of Kansas City's notorious Pendergast machine. Of a colleague from those days, he commented, "He's not true to his wife, and a man not honorable in his marital relations is not usually honorable in any other way."

Viewing Clinton's numerous infidelities in conjunction with corruption charges that cling to him proves the wisdom of Truman's obvservation.

At the Potsdam conference, an Army PR officer offered to arrange whatever the president needed -- "Anything, you know, like women." "Listen son," said Truman, "I married my sweetheart. She doesn't run around on me, and I don't run around on her."

Truman loved his country the way he loved his family. A 57-year-old senator when World War II broke out, Truman (then a colonel in the reserves) asked Chief of Staff George C. Marshall to assign him to active duty. Without even looking up from his paperwork, Marshall told him he was too old and could better serve in the Senate. As president, Truman promoted Marshall to secretary of state.

Truman took his courage with him to the White House. By pushing civil rights for blacks, he risked erosion of the solid South, and ended up losing four Southern states to the Dixiecrats.

Truman, who was unabashedly pro-labor, needed union support in '48. But when railroad workers tried to shut down the nation with a strike, he threatened to draft them.

Over the local opposition of his State Department, including Marshall (whose prestige was vital to the president's re-election effort), Truman supported independence for the Jews of Palestine.

Israel's first chief rabbi later told him, "God put you in your mother's womb so you would be the instrument to bring the rebirth of Israel after 2,000." One of Truman's aides thought the rabbi was "overdoing things," until he looked at the president and saw tears in his eyes.

Give 'em Hell Harry treated his staff with unfailing kindness. He once told his daughter, Margaret: "Always be nice to people who can't talk back to you. I can't stand a man or woman who bawls out underlings to satisfy an ego."

No plaster saint, Truman was capable of horrendous mistakes, as when he told a Chicago rally that a vote for Dewey was a vote for fascism (that was exhaustion speaking, said aide Clark Clifford).

But during his administration, he met more crises decisively -- the Berlin blockade, the Soviet threat to Greece and Turkey, the Korean War -- than any other president. He confronted each with determination and a deep-seated belief in the ability of the common man to shape his destiny.

Truman confounded the media know-it-alls, winning the 1948 election by more than 2 million votes out of 48 million cast. His campaign became a byword for political courage. Half a century later, we're still just wild about Harry, especially when one of his successors is so lacking in character.


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©1998, Boston Herald; distributed by Creators Syndicate, Inc.