Saturday, March 6, 2010

Give 'em hell, Barry!


As today marks the one year anniversary of this blog, I decided to look back over some of my more recent articles to see if I could pick up on any trends. Much to my surprise, the tone of my latest pieces was extraordinarily downbeat - it has, apparently, become increasingly difficult for me to see anything hopeful in the prospects of either our current president, Barack Obama, or the nation which he hopes to lead to an era of peace and prosperity, the United States of America.

Clearly I need to remind myself (and my readers) that present ill-tidings does not always translate into an equally depressing future. To do this, I have decided to look back at a time in our nation's history when the fortunes of liberalism and a progressive president seemed even more inauspicious than they do now.


It was the presidential election of 1948. The incumbent Commander-in-Chief, Harry Truman, was campaigning for another four years in the White House, but all signs pointed to a humiliating defeat at the polls in November:

- In the midterm elections of 1946, Democrats had lost control of both houses of Congress - the House of Representatives and the Senate - for the first time in more than a decade-and-a-half. As a result, Republicans had effectively scuttled most of President Truman's more ambitious legislative goals and obstructed his good-faith efforts to address the economic recession in which America was mired, hoping to thereby brand Truman with an image of ineptitude and increase their party's chances of reclaiming the White House in 1948.

- Political experts agreed, with virtual unanimity, that Truman's re-election bid was doomed. Polls regularly showed him trailing his Republican opponent, New York Governor and famed "Gangbuster" Thomas Dewey, by double-digits in the popular vote and more than two hundred electoral votes. Oddsmakers in Las Vegas and other gambling centers placed their stakes as fifteen-to-one against the president. A panel of fifty highly-regarded pundits, when asked about the probable outcome of the upcoming contest, came back - independently of one another - with a 50-0 verdict against Truman. Indeed, Dewey's victory over Truman seemed so inevitable that one of America's biggest polling agencies, Gallup, suspended all operations several months before the election, deciding that it would be a waste of money to continue asking people who they intended to support when the answer was exceedingly obvious.

- More sinister were efforts by the House of Un-American Activities Committee to brand various high-ranking officials in the Truman Administration - and, by innuendo, Truman himself - as being "Communistic", thus calling into general question not merely the competence of Truman and his administration, but the very patriotism and fealty to American ideals of liberals in general. Truman rightly labelled such efforts as a "red herring" intended to discredit progressivism and deflect public attention away from the real issues facing this country. Nevertheless, HUAAC remained very influential in shaping the views of many on the far right.

- What made this last fact additionally ironic was the fact that the pro-Communist elements of the American left had purged themselves from the Democratic Party, abandoning Truman for his hard-line stance against the Soviet Union and endorsing third-party candidate Henry Wallace in the 1948 election. Then again, when their defection was combined with the open revolt of pro-segregation Democrats against the Truman Administration (due to its open embrace of a pro-civil rights plank in the Democratic National Convention's platform), the presence of not one but TWO different third-party candidacies that drew votes away from the Democratic Party seemed only to further guarantee that Truman was going to be defeated.

Despite these signs, there was one man who refused to be overtaken by the pessimism that surrounded him - President Harry Truman himself. Instead of succumbing to melancholia and quietly acquiescing to conventional wisdom about his impending political demise, Truman waged a pugnacious and defiant counterattack. Boarding a train that took him all over America in a "Whistle Stop" campaign, he denounced the 80th Congress for its "do nothing" tactics, drawing attention to their transparent bias toward the interests of America's wealthy class and calling them out on their strategy of harming not only Truman's agenda, but the best interest of America, in order to help GOP fortunes in that year's election. At one point, a particularly enthusiastic Democratic partisan was so riled up by Truman's rhetoric that he shouted out "Give 'em hell, Harry!" To this, Truman uttered a famous reply: "I don't give them Hell. I just tell the truth about them and they think it's Hell."

His actions were not met with approval by America's class of self-designated opinion-makers. As a rule, Truman's national train tour was dismissed - often with a fair degree of ridicule - as the lame efforts of a political dead duck to salvage his hopeless cause. Emblematic of the general feeling was the editorial written by The New York Times endorsing Dewey over Truman (only the second time in thirty-six years that that paper had endorsed a Republican over a Democrat), in which the venerable newspaper criticized Truman for his "appeal to class interest as a method of giving fresh meaning to his candidacy". By the time Election Day approached, Time Magazine had published a feature story on the new Dewey Administration that could be expected to take office in 1949, while the staff of the Chicago Tribune finished their work early by completing their headline story - DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN - right away and getting it to the presses as quickly as possible.

Of course, on the day after the election, President Truman would see the DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN headline and react accordingly:

It is easy to figure out why the president has such an impish grin on his face - despite the overwhelming odds against him, he had won. When all the results had been tabulated, Truman finished with 24,179,347 popular votes (49.6%) to Dewey's 24,179,347 (45.1%), with the remainder being split more or less evenly among the two third-party contenders. In the electoral college, Truman's victory was even more sweeping - he had picked up 303 electoral votes to Dewey's 189, with Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond winning 39 and the pro-Communist Henry Wallace netting 0. Just as significant, the two-year Republican reign over Congress had come to an unexpected and decisive close - Democrats swept both houses, thus guarantee that when Truman was inaugurated on January 20, 1949, he would be working with a legislative branch that was dominated by friends rather than enemies.

What This Means:

It means that, despite the cynical forecasts that have been continually issued, by myself and others, regarding President Barack Obama's prospects - about his success as president and about his chances of being re-elected in 2012 - the reality is that history has a funny way of surprising even the most knowledgeable and confident. Perhaps I and Obama's other left-wing critics are correct in feeling that he has been too timid in his agenda, too weak in shaking results out of Congress, and too misguided in his specific legislative priorities. Perhaps the conservatives crowing about an impending Republican takeover of Congress in 2010 are absolutely right in their predictions, and perhaps the occupant of the Oval Office in 2013 will indeed be Mitt Romney or Fred Thompson or some other bearer of the Republican label. Perhaps all of these things will indeed be true - or maybe, just maybe, all of us are wrong, and Obama still has a couple of tricks up his sleeve. Either way, as I look forward to another year on this blog, I have one main piece of advice for my president:

Give 'em hell, Barry.

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