“The damned place is haunted, sure as shootin.’”
President Harry Truman wrote that to his wife Bess in 1946. He was talking about the White House. “You and Margie [their daughter Margaret] had better come back and protect me before some of these ghosts carry me off.”
Truman had fun with the idea that the executive mansion — he called it “the great white jail” — was populated by the spirits of president past. “The floors pop and the drapes move back and forth,” he wrote Bess. “I can just hear old Andy and Teddy having an argument over Franklin. Or James Buchanan and Franklin Pierce deciding which one was the most useless to the country. And when Millard Fillmore and Chester Arthur join in for place and show the din is almost unbearable.”
In reality, those popping floors were the sound of an old house slowly falling apart, a potential catastrophe that was averted by a complete gut rehab that took some three years and forced the Trumans to move into Blair House across the street on Pennsylvania Avenue. Still, it’s amusing to think about those presidential specters continuing to roam the halls. Doubtless Buchanan and Pierce have settled their argument and determined that Donald Trump wins the title of “most useless president” hands down. Now they’re just betting the over/under on impeachment.
All of this comes by way of a Memorial Day weekend trip to the Truman presidential library and museum in Independence, Missouri. We were there for the presentation of this year’s 2017 Truman Scholarships, awarded to a talented handful of college students from across the United States who have plans for graduate school and a career in public service (Congratulations, Lexi!).
The visit was revelatory as we got reacquainted with Truman’s life and career and thought about how little he had in common with the current White House resident — about the only thing was a shared distrust of the press. Truman referred to newspapers as “lie outlets,” but mostly that was directed at their publishers; he enjoyed palling around with the White House press corps.
What a remarkable story Truman’s was: a kid with bad eyesight and a love of books who couldn’t afford college. As a young adult, he went through a time of bad investments and failed business ventures until World War I, when his service as an artillery officer revealed an heretofore unknown capacity for leadership. Back home he got involved in politics, rising up through the ranks of the Boss Pendergast machine while keeping himself unsoiled (for the most part) from the corruption and graft that eventually sent Tom Pendergast to prison for tax evasion.
Truman was elected to the Senate in 1934, made a name for himself exposing cost overruns and shoddy manufacturing in the defense industry and in 1944 was named FDR’s vice presidential running mate, becoming president in 1945 with Roosevelt’s sudden death. He told reporters, “I felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on me.”
It was a momentous time but the modest Truman proved up to the task, serving as World War II ended, the Cold War began and the government and country dealt with a new time of both prosperity and peril. There were big decisions: dropping two deadly atomic bombs on Japan, the desegregation of the armed services, the firing of Douglas MacArthur as commander of allied forces in the Korean War.
Throughout, he demonstrated a thoughtful leadership that, even if he was wrong — and the decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki will forever be controversial — he was forthright. What’s more, he knew his history and how to use government for the people, whether building roads as a county official back home in Missouri or unsuccessfully fighting for universal health care as president. At the risk of stating the darkly obvious, such qualities are today in short supply.
“I would much rather be an honorable public servant and known as such than to be the richest man in the world,” Truman wrote in his diary. And, as one of the library’s exhibits notes, “He refused to cheapen the office of president with endorsements” of commercial products.
But almost nowhere is the woeful dissonance between the Truman and Trump presidencies more evident than in Trump’s disgraceful behavior in Europe last week.
During Truman’s tenure, his Truman Doctrine sent $400 million in aid to postwar Greece and Turkey when it seemed as though both countries might fall into the sphere of the Soviet Union. He called upon Secretary of State George Marshall to oversee what became known as the Marshall Plan — more than $13 billion to rebuild Europe from the ruins of World War II. And he was present at the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), signing the document creating the military alliance that today guarantees the mutual defense of 28 nations in Europe and North America.
In his landmark biography, Truman, historian David McCullough writes:
“For the United States, it marked a radical departure with tradition — the first peacetime military alliance since the signing of the Constitution — but had such an agreement existed in 1914 and 1939, Truman was convinced, the world would have been spared two terrible wars. He ranked NATO with the Marshall Plan, as one of the proudest achievements of his presidency, and was certain time would prove him right.”
But Donald Trump has essentially told our NATO allies to go to hell. With an appalling lack of historical perspective, courtesy or just plain common sense, he went out of his way to insult our friends. At the NATO summit in Brussels, he suggested that the majority of its members were, in the words of the Associated Press, “freeloaders not paying their share for military protection,” a charge that is misleading and only slightly accurate (earning him Four Pinocchios from Washington Post Fact Checker Glenn Kessler, an honor reserved for “whoppers” of lies).
Further, in his official remarks, although he said he no longer believed NATO to be “obsolete,” President Trump failed to mention Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, the linchpin of the agreement, guaranteeing that all members will come to the aid of other members in the event of an attack. That he did so at the dedication of a 9/11 memorial at NATO’s new headquarters, a monument built to commemorate how allies rushed to our side in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks — the only time Article 5 has ever been officially invoked — was an egregious slap in the face.
The press had been told by the White House that Trump would reaffirm Article 5, as every president, Republican or Democrat, has done since Truman, but he did not do so in his speech. Constanze Stelzenmüller, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote:
“For Trump to refuse to do so is a devastating blow to the alliance’s credibility, at a time when it is surrounded by threats. It increases the risk of a Russian strategic miscalculation, putting American and European soldiers’ lives at risk…
“It’s duly noted that the president seems far more comfortable with autocrats than with his Western, democratically elected peers. Equivocations about US support for Russia sanctions don’t help.”
As Stelzenmüller suggests, Trump’s belligerent “America First,” nativist, bullying stance was part of a pattern during his recent trip abroad, as he basked in praise from the Saudis and Israelis but berated his western partners in democracy. Little wonder that German chancellor Angela Merkel told a rally, “The times when we could fully rely on others are to some extent over — I experienced that in the last few days.”
There may still be ghosts of former presidents prowling the White House but across Europe there roam phantoms of war and genocide. If we continue to pursue a policy of isolation and disregard, those ghosts again could thunder back to life. There will be a price to pay. Trump’s predecessors, Truman especially, understood that oceans and distance no longer protect us from terror and misfortune. Does he?