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Bill Clinton is no Harry Truman

By Paul Weyrich
web posted January 14, 2002

When presidents of the Twentieth Century are evaluated, the name of Harry Truman almost always comes up near the top. But that was certainly not the contemporary view of the haberdasher from Independence, Missouri. In fact, Truman left the White House in something like disgrace. There was no fanfare sending him off. No speeches to his former employees about how much good he had done. He and his wife Bess were spotted at Union Station, loading some additional boxes into their sedan, all alone. They didn't even have any Secret Service agents, because such protection for former presidents didn't come until later. No, Harry and Bess were content to drive across country back to Independence. It was only some time later, in Eisenhower's second term, in fact, that Truman made his reputation as having very pungent and insightful comments to make on current issues.

Harry TrumanTruman is now beloved, and his policies applauded, but only in retrospect. One cannot imagine Truman calling together some members of his cabinet, after he got settled in Independence, and saying to them "Listen boys. My image isn't what I would like it to be. I did a lot of good for the country but the damn fools don't recognize it. So what do you say? How about you boys giving some speeches around the country, maybe writing some articles for the papers, telling people what a great president I was?"

Truman said nothing [at first]. Truman did not orchestrate a campaign to improve his image. Instead, after several years of silence, Truman began to speak out. So much of what he said was rooted in common sense that it began to attract the attention of the American people. Television was now common, and citizens got to see and hear Vintage Truman. He was funny. He could be terribly serious. What he said was always cutting edge. Through all of this, his character showed through. That is why, before he died, Truman went from being a former president whose ratings were the lowest ever seen by pollsters (at that time), to being a former president who was loved and appreciated by the nation, indeed even by those (such as my family) who still didn't agree with his decision to fire General Douglas MacArthur or to veto the Taft-Hartley Act.

Bill Clinton was another two-term Democrat who left office in disgrace. But what a difference! Clinton did, in fact, get some of his cabinet members and closest advisors together to see what could be done to improve his image. I probably won't be alive to see it, but I am willing to wager that a quarter of a century from now, Bill Clinton will still not be regarded as a class act.

Bill ClintonFirst of all, unlike Truman, Clinton did not remain silent for a respectable amount of time. Then, despite the fact that overwhelming majorities of the of the body politic support the way President George W. Bush is prosecuting the war on terrorism, Clinton lets it be known that he thinks he would have done a better job as Commander-in-Chief. It is self-congratulatory statements such as that one that subtract from the image of the president.

What happened with Truman, with Teddy Roosevelt, and what is beginning to happen now with Ronald Reagan, is that their character has emerged crystal clear. All of them were, in a way inconceivable to Bill Clinton, public servants, genuinely interested in others more than in themselves. In the case of Clinton, his character is already displayed, revealing him as interested only in himself. Others are important to him only as reflectors of his image. Even JFK, whose image has suffered considerable tarnish after 35 years of re-evaluation, retains a positive reputation because he did make some courageous decisions, without worrying about what the polls said. It is quite unlikely that, when Bill Clinton's papers are made public in a couple of decades, we will find unsuspected examples of political and moral courage.

I find the picture of Bill Clinton huddled up with his advisors, scheming to enhance his "legacy," unbelievably sad. Here is a man of such incredible ability – probably the smartest president of the 20th century. Yet he blew it all away for the sake of petty politics and petty pleasures. No wonder the man feels lonely and abandoned. Harry at least had the faithful Bess. Bill has Hillary. Small comfort there.

As scripture says, we reap what we sow. Clinton is to be pitied. He had so much and he did so little with it. Now that is beginning to dawn on him.

Paul Weyrich is president of the Free Congress Foundation.

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