Thursday, August 30, 2012

Two Americans

Convention week lends itself to a certain amount of political nostalgia - and not just about political conventions (an acquired taste at best).   So I've devoted of the late-night time I might otherwise have spent convention-watching to read William Lee Miller's, Two Americans: Truman, Eisenhower, and a Dangerous World (Knopf, 2012) - an inspiring escape from our current uninspiring politics.
Harry S Truman (1884-1972) and Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) were respectively the 33rd and 34th presidents of the United States, occupying the White House from April 12, 1945 to January 20, 1961, years of enormous importance in modern American and world history. While each man would occupy a place at the pinnacle of world events (Eisenhower as Allied Supreme Commander in World War II as well as President later), both came from modest, small-town American backgrounds - the kind of backgrounds our political culture easily romanticizes but which in this case really did pay off for the country in making them the men they were. Bookended in the White House by old-money aristocrat FDR and new money aristocrat JFK, Truman and Eisenhower really did represent the American "common man." Truman was the last president never to have attended college (which I well remember was part of his appeal to my father). Neither owned his own house until after his presidency. Truman was probably the poorest 20th century president. Eishenhower did better but would hardly have counted as rich - something to think about, now that we just routinely take it for granted that our presidents will be millionares. Both had what Miller calls "a straightforward, uncomplicated patriotism." Both enormously admired General George Marshall, and both saw through General Douglas Mac Arthur. Both got to the top by combinations of circumstances harldy anyone would have earlier predicted, and both made the most of their prominence through the double firestorm of war and Cold War, helping to create a framework for peace and unparalleled prosperity.
Miller treats their separate life paths from obscurity to pre-eminence, how their paths unexpectedly intersected at the close of World War II, how they collaborated in creating the post-war world, and their subsequent political rivalry. Unfortunately, the book does have a few factual errors. The Soviet Union did not enter the war against Japan on August 15. The 1960 summit was not in Geneva. JFK's funeral was not at Washington's National Cahtedral. At best, whenever in a book I encounter those kinds of errors concerning facts I know about, it's an unnecessary distraction. at worst, it makes me wonder what other errors there may be in matters I don't know about and am relying on the author to inform me of! That said, all in all, the book combines engaging biography and genuine historical insight about a fascinating time and the pivotal part these two true leaders played.
Of course, as with all real people, there was more to each man's story than his genuine down-to-earth American modesty and his high moral stature. Each had his limitations and faults. And no account could fail to record their famous 1950s feud. Miller quotes an observation by British MP Roy Jenkins, commenting on the (in)famous January 20, 1953, transition from Truman to Eisenhower. Jenkins remarked on "the unfortunate picture of two gnetlemen in their sixties, both outstanding servants of the greatest democracy in the world, behaving in a way which would have been discreditable to two small boys of eight."
Did their feud and petulant behavior toward each other stand out all the more because our standards were higher then? Would one's reaction be the same today, when, on the one hand, boorish behavior in public is increasingly the norm, and, on the other, comparably "outstanding servants of the greatest democracy in the world" would be hard, if not impossible, to locate? 
Truman and Ike famously reconciled at JFK's funeral. Something about being confronted by our common mortality maybe? 

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