He's No Bill Clinton

By Franklin, Daniel | The Washington Monthly, May 1995 | Go to article overview

He's No Bill Clinton


Franklin, Daniel, The Washington Monthly


It was a tough year for the President. Foreign policy errors bogged down his domestic programs; nominations were stonewalled by a hostile Congress; party insiders even considered recruiting a challenger for the Democratic nomination. He was, in the words of one journalist, "essentially indecisive ... essentially vacillating." Quite simply, Americans began to doubt seriously that he had the character to be the country's top executive.

Yes, 1946 just wasn't Harry Truman's year. But he bounced back, won reelection in 1948, and has received from history a reverence that borders on the Rushmoric. For many Americans now, Truman is seen as a model president--a man of integrity, modesty, and decisiveness. Walter Isaacson of Time called him "America's greatest common-man president." Eric Sevareid said that "Remembering him reminds people what a man in that office ought to be like.... He stands like a rock in memory now." So revered is the Man from Independence that in 1992, both parties' nominees fought to be considered "the Truman candidate."

Now that Republicans have both houses of Congress for the first time since 1946, Clinton aides are scanning David McCullough's best-selling Truman biography in search of the magic bullet that will hand Bill Clinton a Trumanesque comeback in 1996. Clinton took the Truman title in 1992, but now the country--and the press--is skeptical. "Bill Clinton," wrote historian James Pinkerton in the Los Angeles Times, "is no Harry Truman."

That's true, but those White House staffers looking for a magic bullet are missing the point. Clear away the historical fogs and set aside the acerbic press coverage and you cannot escape a startling conclusion: Clinton's first two years have put Truman's to shame. By April 1995, Clinton has accomplished far more for the American people than "give 'em hell" Harry had by April 1947. Clinton has guided the economy more successfully. He has enacted more laws with real impact. Yet while Truman is held in near-Jeffersonian regard, Bill Clinton is written off as a Warren Harding in jogging shorts.

Consider one of the core issues of any presidency: the economy. With the war over, the country began the painful conversion to a peacetime economy. Hundreds of thousands of veterans returned from World War II to an economy that had reached record production levels without them. In Chicago alone, at least 100,000 veterans were jobless. Major industries--including coal, railroad, and steel--convulsed with labor strikes that threatened to paralyze the entire country. Truman's response was heavy-handed and ineffectual. He threatened to seize coal mines and draft striking railroad workers into the military. Both measures were rebuffed by the Supreme Court and Congress, respectively, for being blatantly unconstitutional.

The economy grew but the growth was more than overshadowed by inflation rates that soared to 14.6 percent in 1947. There were shortages in many of the products people needed, including housing, automobiles, sugar, coffee, and meat. And with the Great Depression fresh in the American memory, many wondered whether another economic crash, one even greater than before, was just around the corner.

Truman could have prevented the inflation. After the war, Republicans in Congress launched an effort to repeal wartime price controls. Truman saw that decontrol had to be gradual, so that it would not unleash inflation. But, as The New Republic's "TRB" columnist wrote in 1946, "The trouble is, Truman didn't make a real fight.... He didn't carry through.... He saw and predicted the recession but let Congress and business have their way. Truman won the argument all right, but that isn't quite enough in politics."

Clinton knows this. He is the first president in the last 30 years to achieve both job growth and low inflation. The "misery index"--inflation plus unemployment--is currently below nine; under Bush it was above 11; under Truman it was nearly 20. …

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