By Barbara Baum Levine
Reading The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and The Four Months That Changed The World by A.J. Baime, one is impressed with the striking comparisons to both Donald Trump and Joe Biden in the challenges each has met or can anticipate.
Like Trump, Truman was relatively unknown in politics when he unexpectedly assumed the office of President of the United States (POTUS). Truman was an unsuccessful businessman from Missouri who entered politics pretty much for lack of anything better to do. Trump, having left The Apprentice and trailed by a stream of failed business ventures and bankruptcies, seemed likewise to need something to do.
Despite his personal honesty and integrity, Truman’s reputation was tainted by his mentor, “Boss” Tom Pendergast, who ran the Kansas City Democratic political machine and ultimately was jailed for income tax evasion of more than $300,000, money illegally collected while “arranging a compromise” in a fraudulent insurance deal. Other Pendergast operatives were already jailed on Kansas City election fixing charges. Trump’s reputation was always tainted by his associations with crime figures involved in New York real estate deals. The Trump administration has seen more than 34 people and three companies charged on more than 100 criminal counts.
Roosevelt ran for an unprecedented fourth term in 1944. Claiming responsibilities regarding the war (and apparently hiding the fact that he was already quite ill), he did not attend the Chicago convention that year, leaving the choice of vice president up to the convention delegates. Sly as always, Roosevelt had nonetheless promised the VP spot to Henry Wallace, his current VP, as well as to two other potential candidates. When no name could be agreed upon, Robert Hannegan, Chair of the Democratic National Committee and fellow Missourian, named the relatively unknown Senator Harry Truman. For his part, Trump gained his national nomination over candidates with far more experience and national recognition.
While he had some expectation that FDR would likely not survive his fourth term, Truman was wholly unprepared to assume the office. FDR barely knew Truman and did not include him in his regular meetings and briefings. Truman’s knowledge of international affairs was virtually equal to that of any American who read the daily newspapers.
The real comparison comes when Truman is suddenly thrust into the office of POTUS. While he had some expectation that FDR would likely not survive his fourth term, Truman was wholly unprepared to assume the office. FDR barely knew Truman and did not include him in his regular meetings and briefings. Truman’s knowledge of international affairs was virtually equal to that of any American who read the daily newspapers.
Nonetheless, Truman dived into the position, barely sleeping at night, reading and absorbing everything he could about current foreign and domestic issues. In those first four months of his presidency, Truman relied heavily on the existing members of the Cabinet and the administration, not moving to change any positions until he had a firm grasp of all that was in play. At the same time, he brought an honesty and transparency into the White House and the administration that had not existed under the aristocratic authority of FDR. Those first four months saw the end of World War II, first in Europe, and then ultimately in Japan. When Truman became president, he had no idea about the existence of the Manhattan Project. Four months later, he made the decision to drop the hydrogen and atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By July 6, 2½ months into his “accidental presidency,” this virtually unknown president’s approval rating was 87%, a level higher than Roosevelt had ever achieved.
When Trump took office, President Obama handed him a 69-page playbook detailing strategies and recommendations for handling a potential pandemic. Trump paid no attention whatsoever.
Compare this with Donald Trump, who assumed a very different world in 2016. The economy was booming thanks to the recovery engineered by Obama and Biden. Unemployment was down from record highs, and the worst recession since the Great Depression had been averted. More than 20 million Americans gained health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. The Obama administration had acted swiftly and effectively to stem a national pandemic of the 2009 H1N1 (swine flu) virus and the 2014 Ebola outbreak. When Trump took office, President Obama handed him a 69-page playbook detailing strategies and recommendations for handling a potential pandemic. Trump paid no attention whatsoever. Instead, Trump went about attempting to dismantle and discredit every action taken by his predecessor. He famously refused to read the President’s Daily Briefs (PDB) prepared every daily for every president since 1946 under Harry Truman, not surprising as Truman, a man who always wanted as much information as he could get in order to make a decision, began the practice. Trump has eschewed precedence, refused advice from even the most seasoned and knowledgeable members of the government, and insisted that he, without experience or training, knows more than anyone about governing, pandemics, and the like.
Joe Biden can also be compared to Harry Truman. Like Truman, he comes from humble beginnings. He, too, was raised by honest, hardworking people who instilled in him the virtues of honesty and integrity. While Biden has the advantage of his experience in the Senate and as vice president, if elected, he stands to inherit a country in worse shape than what Truman “accidentally” inherited.
Joe Biden can also be compared to Harry Truman. Like Truman, he comes from humble beginnings. He, too, was raised by honest, hardworking people who instilled in him the virtues of honesty and integrity. While Biden has the advantage of his experience in the Senate and as vice president, if elected, he stands to inherit a country in worse shape than what Truman “accidently” inherited. Truman faced a country at war, a country where many of its citizens barely recalled a time when Roosevelt was not its president. He stepped into a role with little knowledge of its inner workings and with an administration that had spent 13 years under the guidance and control of his predecessor. Nevertheless, Truman stood up, took the reins, studied and learned all he could and, ultimately, led this country out of war, dealing with the rising Cold War and the transition from a wartime to peacetime economy.
Biden would inherit a country reeling from the worst pandemic in 100 years, the thriving economy he and Obama left to the country in 2016 then ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic and Trump’s trade wars, unemployment spiraling out of control, and small and large businesses failing. We can’t know how he and Harris will fare if elected, but we can certainly assume that his experience and well-established reputation for honesty and integrity will guide him, as it did Harry Truman, into setting this country on a path toward peace, prosperity, and justice. The choice is ours.