Among the nation’s founders, whose side do you like? Jefferson said an informed citizenry was key to self-government and a bulwark against tyranny. Hamilton thought you and I and the rest of We the People were basically rabble, needing to be led with a strong hand.
Hamilton essentially lost. Most of us at least say we prefer Jefferson’s gentler, more idealistic vision.
But it takes work. The hard work of citizenship includes a commitment to staying informed and staying engaged in the debates of the day. Read a book. Be open to changing your mind.
“And that’s totally what the founders wanted,” author and presidential historian Michael Beschloss said last Saturday at the Bennett Forum on the Presidency. It’s an annual event, held by the Truman Library Institute, that never fails to produce thoughtful conversations.
Beschloss has a new book, “Presidents of War,” and fellow panelist David Von Drehle of the Washington Post expressed surprise that a book of this scale on this subject hasn’t been written before.
Even Harry Truman gets some criticism here, not for answering North Korea’s 1950 invasion of South Korea with American-led troops but for never asking Congress to declare war. We’ve had plenty of wars but no declaration of war since Pearl Harbor, and that’s not good. It lets Congress off the hook, instead of having to make a decision, buy into the policy and live with it. That’s called leadership.
“And I love Harry Truman, but it was a bad example he set,” Beschloss said.
Lyndon Johnson, he added, cited that precedent in ramping up the war in Vietnam, where nearly 60,000 Americans died.
“It’s not what our idealistic founders wanted to see,” Beschloss said.
Let’s be clear. Truman is considered one of the nation’s half-dozen best presidents because a string of historic decisions came flying at him from the minute he took office, and he got nearly all of them right.
But flaws deserve discussion too. How is it, Beschloss asked, that Truman idolized Woodrow Wilson, who wrote of such high ideals but became a terrible president? He pursued actively racist policies – extreme even in his day – and pushed African-Americans out of the federal government. Let’s not forget the Palmer raids and other efforts to stifle dissent.
And his failure to fully engage with the Senate and get the U.S. into the League of Nations killed that project and contributed mightily to the carnage of World War II.
“I love Harry Truman, but that’s one thing that Harry Truman and I do not share,” Beschloss said, regarding Wilson. Von Drehle seconded that, wondering how Wilson has gotten a pass for a century,
I’ve been wondering about this myself for some time. I guess I’m not the only one.
The speakers underscored the need for leaders – and all of us – to stay engaged.
“I think he (Truman) was probably the best read president we’ve had of presidential history,” Beschloss said, echoing the popular idea that that’s largely why he succeeded.
We live in fraught times – as we have before. Think of 1862, 1942, 1968, just for starters. We need to rely on ourselves. Pick up a book. Stay in the arena.
– Jeff Fox is The Examiner’s editor.