GEORGE BUSH is trying to take the meaning out of Harry Truman's political legacy. Lacking a record of his own he is willing to defend, President Bush has decided to link his campaign for reelection to Mr. Truman's come-from-behind victory of 1948. Yet Bush stands for a domestic agenda that Truman dedicated his life to opposing.
Bush would have us to believe that he is Truman - notwithstanding the complaint of Truman's daughter, Margaret, that the president is a "political plagiarist." After his nomination in Houston last month, the president quoted Truman's 1948 acceptance speech: "As Harry Truman said: This is more than a political call to arms. Give me your help, not to win voters alone, but to win this new crusade and keep America safe and secure for its own people." On the campaign trail, Bush frequently invokes Truman when
he rails against Congress, and asks the public to throw the bums out and reelect him.
Never mind that Truman, in an effort to establish his link to the New Deal, attributed his quoted remarks to Franklin D. Roosevelt, the architect of governmental responsibility for directing the economy and safeguarding society. Never mind that for 12 years Ronald Reagan and Bush have sought to sever the tie between the government and the governed, between taxpayers and society. And never mind that Bush is asking for four more years to continue his attacks on government spending, promising more tax cuts and (unspecified) reductions in government programs. Bush plans to give 'em hell and get reelected in 1992 - just as Truman did in 1948 - by running against a "do-nothing" Congress. But there all similarity ends.
Dedicated to freedom, equal justice, and equal opportunity, Truman launched what he called the Fair Deal after World War II. Four days after V-J Day, the feisty and partisan president asked Congress to give the American people a "second Bill of Rights." He sought to consolidate the limited welfare state President Roosevelt built in the 1930s, and thereby earned the eternal enmity and opposition of the Republican Party - until apparently the Houston convention.
TRUMAN'S program called for "useful and remunerative" jobs, assistance to farmers, public housing, "adequate medical care," and the "right to a good education." Suffice it to say, the Republican 80th Congress elected in 1946 gave Truman none of what he asked for. Instead, because it understood that government needs money to fulfill promises it did not want to make, the 80th Congress sent Truman three tax-cut bills.
In response to his inability to advance his progressive domestic agenda, Truman ran for reelection in 1948 on a platform that emphasized a strong federal government. In particular, he proposed expanding civil rights and establishing national health insurance, a still elusive goal of American politics. (Bill Clinton's health-care proposal, which is much more moderate than the one Truman proposed, Bush has likened to the KGB.) Campaigning against "a bunch of old mossbacks ... gluttons of privilege ... all set to do a hatchet job on the New Deal," Truman, as we know, narrowly defeated Thomas Dewey. Forty-four years later, in the most incredible metamorphosis in American political history, Truman has become a hero for Bush.
There can be no better indication of Bush's lack of character than his appropriation of Harry Truman's legacy for political purposes Truman opposed. The American people are looking for authenticity in politics. Time and again, they tell pollsters that what they want most from candidates is honesty and clear direction - the plain-speaking, in other words, of a Harry Truman, who told the truth and let the chips fall where they may.
Lloyd Bentsen's famous "You're no John Kennedy" quip to Dan Quayle resonates deeply each time it is used in its many variations because it exposes the fakery of any candidate who would dress himself in someone else's clothes in this era when so many would-be statesmen present themselves to a cynical but ignorant public as other than who they are.