Gov. Palin is correct: she and Harry Truman do have a lot in common. Consider this time capsule from 1944: "Poor people of the United States. Truman is a nice man, an honest man, a good Senator, a man of great humility and a man of courage. He will make a passable Vice President. But Truman as President of the United States in times like these?" That was Richard Strout, writing in the New Republic shortly after FDR named his fourth-term VP candidate. In the short time since she was announced as John McCain’s running mate last weekend, the New Republic and other publications have again begun laying judgment on the merits of a choice for Vice President. Peter Scoblic of the current New Republic calls Palin’s resume “frighteningly thin” and the choice of her as VP “arrogant”. Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post said McCain had put “politics over country” in choosing a candidate with so little foreign policy experience. John Dickerson of Slate called it “reckless” and Jonathan Alter at Newsweek is sure she’s likely to “bellyflop” when faced with questions from reporters on issues she’s not familiar with.
They obviously hadn’t met “Sarah Barracuda” yet.
They sure have now. If Sarah Palin’s rousing speech at the Republican National Convention is any indication of how she will handle herself – as both candidate and office-holder -- the media and the pundits will be eating their words. In her speech on Wednesday night she deftly made reference to these doubters in the media -- and to her own unusual road to the nomination -- by referring to “a young farmer and haberdasher from Missouri who followed an unlikely path to the vice presidency.” She was referring, of course, to Harry Truman – a small town man of common means who became both Vice President and later President in a time of war – and ended up being what many now consider one of the better presidents of the 20th century.
It is a comparison that fits Palin well – and may help to quiet those who say that she isn’t yet ready to be Vice President. As noted biographer David McCullough writes in Truman, he was the “son of rural, inland America”, who never went to college and served with distinction as an artillery officer in the Missouri National Guard in World War I. He tried his hand at several vocations before starting his haberdashery business – which ultimately became a casualty of hard economic times. Like the life of Sarah Palin and her family, it was not one of privilege -- rather it was filled with the ordinary challenges of an ordinary American.
Also like Palin, Truman began his political career in small-town politics -- as an administrative judge of the Jackson County Court, where he was known for his honest efficiency and ability to “get things done”. After a series of local government posts, he entered the larger stage as a United States Senator from Missouri in 1934. Truman’s senate career was largely uneventful until the early 1940s when he led what became known as the “Truman Committee”, investigating waste and fraud in defense contracting. He made his name on something that Sarah Palin would certainly appreciate – pushing back on graft and “sweetheart” deals inside the government.
Harry Truman’s experience as a Senator wasn’t especially broad or deep, and it hardly prepared him to be Vice President in a time of war. He was VP for just three months and rarely saw FDR alone before the President’s death. Upon becoming President himself, Truman had little inside knowledge about the key issues facing him: he knew little about how World War II was being prosecuted and knew nothing about the Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb. He also was totally unprepared to deal with Joseph Stalin – who had been pushing around an ill and weakened Roosevelt in negotiations over a defeated Europe. By all measures, Truman was hardly qualified to step into the presidency. As McCullough writes, the reaction in the country was initially one of panic: “Good God, Truman will be President”, it was being said everywhere. “If Harry Truman can be President, so could my next door neighbor.”
And yet, history shows that Truman was more than up to the job. He went to Yalta just after FDR’s death and took the measure of Stalin and saw that he was not to be trusted -- making it clear that the United States would not stand pat while the Soviet Union annexed all of Western Europe. He made the tough decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan because he knew it would end the war in the Pacific. He went on to pass the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe. He desegregated the U.S. armed forces and recognized the state of Israel. In short, he made tough decisions on the most complex issues of the day -- decisions that have stood the test of time.
The foundation for these decisions came not from experience, but rather from a wellspring of solid character, reliable instinct and good judgment. As Mary McGrory wrote in the Washington Post on the day of Truman’s death in 1972: "He was not a hero or a magician or a chess player, or an obsession (emphasis added). He was a certifiable member of the human race, direct, fallible, and unexpectedly wise when it counted.
Unlike Barack Obama, who is an obsession of the left, Sarah Palin from this vantage point looks a lot like Harry Truman: a small town woman with five kids and a husband who has a regular job. She began her career as a small town mayor, close to the people and their problems. She took on the entrenched interests of her state, resigning as Chair of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission in protest of ethical violations by another commissioner that were ignored by the sitting governor. When she became governor herself, she quickly broke up the old boys network that is Alaskan politics, rejecting the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” and passing real ethics reform in the state. She’s a reformer who is tough and principled, and who has earned the respect of her opponents. And based on her speech Wednesday night, it is not difficult to imagine Sarah Palin standing firm with Vladimir Putin if put in that position -- much in the same way Truman handled Stalin.
Indeed, those who have seen Palin in action in Alaska attest to her good political instincts, her toughness and her broad-based appeal to ordinary Americans. As Christopher Orr of the New Republic writes: "What the Democrats seem poised to miss now (about Palin) --is that she is a true political savant; a candidate with a knack for identifying the key gripes of the populace and packaging herself as the solution. That keen political nose has enabled her to routinely outperform her resume. Nearly two years into her administration, she still racks up approval ratings of 80 per cent or better."
If the Democrats missed it before, it will be hard (but not impossible – such is their disdain for her) to underestimate Palin after the performance she put on tonight at the Republican National Convention. What they saw was a natural at work.
Orr goes on to make another critical point about Palin: "Sarah Palin is a living reminder that the ultimate source of political power in this country is not the Kennedy School or the Davos Summit or an Ariana Huffington salon; even now, power emanates from the electorate itself. More precisely, power in 2008 emanates from the working class electorates of Pennsylvania and Ohio."
My guess is that in this election year, Harry Truman would have appealed mightily to those working class voters in Pennsylvania and Ohio – regardless of how many Senate hearings he’d held, or how much foreign policy experience he has. And now, after Sarah Palin has had a chance to introduce herself to the American public, I bet that she will, too.