the national interest

Looking to Harry Truman to Understand Hillary Clinton

What if Hillary governs like Harry? Photo-Illustration: Courtesy of the United States Department of State/Stock Montage/Getty Images/Murphy Lippincott

Hillary Clinton’s campaign has been attached by an invisible cord to Bill Clinton’s presidency. At times, the connection has weighed her down; at other times, it has propelled her forward. The parallel makes sense for all the obvious reasons (marriage, shared ideology, Hillary’s active participation in Bill’s political life, etc.). But Bill governed at a different historical moment than the one in which Hillary hopes to, and the circumstances she faces may instead call to mind a different parallel: Harry Truman.

Few presidents ever ascended to their positions in circumstances as deflating as those Truman faced. In 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt, fearing he would not survive his term, agreed to replace his left-wing vice-president, Henry Wallace. He settled haphazardly on Truman, a little-known senator from Missouri, mainly because Truman offended none of the party’s factions strongly. (“The Second Missouri Compromise,” they called him.) As with Clinton, Truman’s voice became a target of mockery. It was shrill and reedy, a jarring and unpleasant contrast with the patrician baritone with which Roosevelt had reassured Americans in his radio addresses. Truman even hired a specialist to help improve his voice, to little effect.

Truman emerged from a notoriously corrupt political organization, built around Missouri boss Tom Pendergast. The association defined his image, and that initial impression clung to Truman during his three months as VP and beyond, during the term he assumed after Roosevelt’s death. Scandals and charges of corruption haunted Truman, and Clinton would relate to the complex, irritating pattern they took. Truman was cleaner than his enemies believed, but he was not pure as the driven snow. He sometimes surrounded himself with men he chose on the basis of loyalty rather than merit, and they did not live up to his trust. Truman’s proposal in 1947 to add a balcony to shade the south side of the White House drew wide scorn as a boondoggle. The “Truman Balcony,” as his critics mockingly called it, symbolized the misplaced grandiosity of an unelected president whose critics never accepted his legitimacy. His fierce partisanship drove him to lash out at all criticism, even when it had some merit, and to fall back on the self-pitying assumption that, since his enemies would hound him no matter what he did, he could dismiss all their complaints equally.

Truman succeeded a historically activist presidency that had run into a brick wall in Congress. The war, plus a combination of conservative Republicans and southern Democrats, had halted the advance of the New Deal by the end of Roosevelt’s presidency. Republicans swept the 1946 midterms, leaving domestic liberals deeply depressed. Characteristically, many of them laid the blame not on the members of Congress blocking new liberal reforms (and who hoped, with the election of a Republican president, to roll FDR’s back) but on the president’s lack of conviction.

Harry Truman has none of the qualities demanded by the presidency,” concluded The New Republic. The old Roosevelt official Harold Ickes, urging him not to run for reelection in 1948, counseled, “You have the choice of retiring voluntarily and with dignity or being driven out of office by a disillusioned and indignant citizenry.”

Left-wing disaffection with Truman coalesced around the splinter candidacy of Wallace, who assailed Truman for allegedly turning his back on the legacy of the New Deal and cast himself as its true heir. Bernie Sanders has, this year, borrowed this theme almost literally — before the New York primary, he ran television ads juxtaposing himself with Franklin Roosevelt. Deciding to run as the candidate of the Progressive Party, Wallace made the familiar charges against Truman as a corrupt shill for big business. His administration was fronting for a “Wall Street war group,” he charged, and his White House had “opened the back door (soon to be enlarged by a whole back porch to accommodate the crowd) to no less than 50 bankers, financiers, and industrialists who now staff our top-level government.” Wallace drew delirious crowds of idealists convinced an alternative to the corrupt two-party duopoly would awaken the people.

Wallace lost the election. So did the Republican candidate Thomas Dewey, much to everyone’s (now famous) surprise. And Truman’s second term did indeed lack in inspiring accomplishments. He did not pass much important domestic legislation, thanks to the right’s hammerlock on Congress. The pathos, disappointment, and moral disgust surrounding Truman; his own sense of constricted limits and contempt for the right and left alike — these were the defining experiences of Truman’s time on the national stage. But Truman’s career, and the esteem in which he eventually came to be held, suggests something about the presidency that may lie before Clinton. The possibilities of a Clinton presidency might be broader than they currently seem.

In important ways, Truman clarified the center of American politics. Roosevelt’s Democratic Party had amassed an enormous but impossibly quarrelsome coalition, stretching from rabid-segregationist white southern reactionaries to peace activists who sympathized with the Soviet Union. Truman had to choose whether Democrats would retain the full loyalty of southern whites or attract the burgeoning support of African-Americans in northern cities. By endorsing a landmark report, “To Secure These Rights,” that called for equal treatment of African-Americans and by desegregating the military, he infuriated the party’s southern-segregationist wing, which bolted to support Senator Strom Thurmond’s “States’ Rights Democratic Party” presidential candidacy. Truman also chose to prosecute the Cold War, at the cost of alienating peace activists. His support for the Marshall Plan, which helped rebuild Western Europe, and his commitment to sending supplies to West Berlin, whom the Soviets hoped to starve into submission, enraged Wallace, who ran a left-wing campaign against him. And so by the time Truman ran in 1948, he was an unpopular incumbent facing a Republican opponent as well as splinter candidacies on both his left and his right. In retrospect, however, Truman created the model for a liberal, anti-communist party that had both coherence and endurance.

There is a model here for Clinton, and not just that a presidency lacking in ecstasy can still deliver the longer-term satisfaction of effective governance. Though the country is not in a 1940s-style crisis, its politics is strained. A passion for conflict and ideological purity defines the Sanders movement on the left; the right is enveloped in reactionary madness. (During Truman’s presidency, that madness took the form of the surreal ascent of pathological liar and demagogue Joseph McCarthy.) Clinton, by rejecting both impulses, has reminded us that she has always been a creature of the middle. An Über-Establishment president leading in anti-Establishment times may, over the long run, come to be seen as commanding the American center — even, perhaps, something like an American consensus.

Truman was a figure of crushing ordinariness, a quality that, over time, came to assume something close to greatness. Clinton gives off a similar sensibility (despite her extraordinary life experience). If you withdraw the presumption of calculation that is attached to her every action, one can see her character aging well through history: a woman who broke into male-dominated fields; a policymaker who is one of the few nerds who are still not cool. It is impossible to predict how Clinton will handle foreign policy, but it is not fanciful to hope that her experience (unusually deep for a president) will enable her to imaginatively face the confounding challenge of radical Islam.

And even if Republicans stymie her domestic initiatives, she might put her imprint on new policies that inspire successors. Clinton has proposed a modernization of the welfare state to include early education and child care. Though Truman’s proposal for universal health insurance failed, the power of his vision remained, and over time its association with Truman added to its grandiosity. And when Obama signed the Affordable Care Act in 2010, that evening, he and his aides celebrated its passage on the Truman Balcony.

*This article appears in the May 16, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.

Looking to Truman to Understand Hillary Clinton