As the 2012 election approaches, Terry Golway is releasing his final book in a series chronicling four American presidencies. Give ’Em Hell: The Tumultuous Years of Harry Truman’s Presidency, in His Own Words and Voice studies Truman’s most memorable speeches in the midst of a political climate similar to that which the 2012 presidential candidates face.
Q: How did you become interested in presidential history?
I can remember as far back as 1964, having an “LBJ All the Way” bumper sticker on my bicycle; I’ve always been interested in the presidency and the people who occupy that office. It was one of the things that actually got me interested in journalism — I certainly never wanted to be president, but thought it might be fun to cover politics.
Q: Do you see any similarities between Truman and Obama?
I think they are very different individuals with very different leadership styles. Truman was a lot more feisty than President Obama has been. Of course, Truman had to be confrontational, otherwise he was going to be doomed, whereas President Obama is looking more to test a consensus as he moves into reelection.
Q: What do you think President Obama’s legacy will be? How will it compare to Truman’s?
Part of President Obama’s legacy will be healthcare reform, and there is the connection, because Truman proposed national healthcare — part of the Fair Deal, Truman’s expansion of the New Deal, was national health insurance — though it never got anywhere. So in many ways, President Obama’s legacy is actually the completion of Truman’s legacy.
Q: Do you see any similarities between Truman and any of the 2012 presidential candidates?
The Democrats took a battering in 2010, and in 1946 Truman suffered an even worse defeat, when both houses of Congress became Republican after two decades of Democratic domination. As he moves toward reelection in 2012, the current president has two models to follow: the Clinton triangulation model of trying to co-opt the opposition, or the in-your-face Truman option of basically campaigning overtly against the Republicans in Congress. Right now it seems to me he’s choosing the Clinton model.
Q: How does today’s political landscape compare to that when Truman assumed the presidency?
You would have thought that after the end of World War II, the U.S. would enter into an “era of good feelings.” But particularly from 1946 to 1949, the country was driven by strife, housing shortages, food shortages. So it was a very discontented electorate in 1948, just as Obama is facing a very discontented electorate in 2012. If the unemployment rate stays as high as it has been, Obama is going to have a battle on his hands, just as Truman had a battle on his hands in 1948.
Q: Do you see any of Truman’s 1948 campaign strategies reflected in any of the 2012 candidates’ strategies?
I think it’s too early to tell. Truman’s strategy was so daring that even the most ideologically driven Republican or Democrat would be careful about basically saying, “The heck with the game plan, let’s just go around the country and give 20 speeches a day.” Truman’s campaign was like a Hail Mary, like when the team is down to two seconds left and you line up all the receivers and pass the ball down and hope for something to happen. It’s a desperate strategy. I don’t think anyone feels desperate right now.
Q: How did Truman deal with the 1946 transition to a GOP-dominated Congress?
Early on — and this was really great — he gave his State of the Union speech in 1947, after the historic 1946 election. He started with a joke, and when Obama gave his this year I was wondering if he was going to make a similar [joking] remark. For the most part, Truman obviously dealt with having a Republican Congress very well — by confronting them, rather than trying to achieve a consensus. That doesn’t always work, but it worked for Harry.
Q: How does that compare to how Obama is dealing with a similar transition today?
Truman was confronted with a seemingly impossible campaign, so he had to go for broke. Obama may not feel the urgency to go for broke because he probably will enter the campaign as the favorite. Politics [today] at the high, presidential level in this country is a very cautious business, and Truman was not cautious. His was probably the most incautious presidential campaign of the 20th century.
Q: What impact, if any, do Truman’s policies have on the salient issues of the 2012 election?
He sort of set the table if healthcare is going to be one of the defining issues. Also, it was Truman who presided over the tremendous American military, political, economic and moral expansion into the world; the Truman Doctrine said that the U.S. would help people resist communism. The American presence in the world, including the Middle East, starts under the Truman administration.
Q: What was the most interesting thing you learned about Truman while writing this book?
He was so comfortable in his own skin that he made a decision, stuck with it and didn’t lose any sleep. He had a conviction and an inner core that convinced him that what he did was right and that history would prove him right. In the campaign of 1948, one of the most remarkable episodes of American history, Harry Truman was being abandoned left and right; everyone believed he was a loser, except for Harry Truman. And guess what? He was right.