Jim Castagnera: The Importance of Character

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[Jim Castagnera is the Associate Provost/Associate Counsel at Rider University. A collection of his columns is available at www.lulu.com.]

I have expressed more than once in this space my reluctance to vote for Barack Obama, because of his inexperience. John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate complicates the choice for me, since McCain, age 72 and a cancer survivor, might not make it through even a first term. The carping back and forth between Obama and Palin partisans, about which of them is less prepared for the presidency, only underlined the inescapable fact that they are both neophytes on the world stage.

This week I re-read David McCullough’s 1992 biography of Harry Truman. The book reminded me that character sometimes trumps experience as a criterion for national leadership. If any president had character in spades, that president was Harry Truman. His biography also reminded me of how little experience Truman brought to almost every new challenge of his career.

When he was elected the lieutenant of his artillery battery and, subsequently promoted to captain, led that battery through some hot action during the 1919 Battle of the Argonne, he rose to that challenge from a background spent almost exclusively down on the family farm. A few years in Missouri’s National Guard marked his only prior military experience. Prior to participating in this great WWI battle, as McCullough says in an essay called “Character Above All,” Truman “had never been in a fight in his life. He was the little boy forbidden by his mother to play in roughhouse games because of his glasses. He was a bookworm --- a sissy, as he said himself later on, using the dreaded word.”

After the war, he and an Army buddy started a men’s wear shop that went bankrupt. Only then did Harry enter politics, running for election to a modest county judgeship. Although put forward by the notorious “Pendergast Machine,” he conducted himself honorably, later stating that he passed up the chance to line his pockets to the tune of a million or more dollars in construction contracts. Remarkably, instead of dumping Truman for refusing to play along, the political bosses later put him up for the U.S. Senate.

Elected to Congress for the first time during the New Deal, Truman arrived in Washington tarred with the Pendergast brush. Some Senate colleagues, according to McCullough, refused to speak to the junior Senator from Missouri. Harry Truman won them over through straight talk and hard work. Still, when he ran for reelection, most observers inside and outside the Senate wrote him off. With few influential friends and little money, he barnstormed his state, sometimes sleeping in his car. A combination of Truman pluck and sheer luck --- his two primary opponents split the anti-Pendergast vote --- returned him to the Senate in 1940.

During this second Senatorial term, Truman came of age in national politics. The Truman Committee, his personal brainstorm, became the Congressional watchdog of wartime spending, arguably saving Uncle Sam billions of dollars by ferreting out waste and graft in defense contracts. Truman’s face landed on the cover of Time Magazine for the first time.

In 1944 Senator Harry Truman became “the Missouri Compromise” at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. After playing coy about his choice for a running mate for his fourth term, FDR dumped incumbent VP Henry Wallace and passed over other leading contenders for the slot in favor of the inoffensive Truman. Truman was vice president for only 82 days, when FDR died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage.

As he had always been disparaged, his ascendancy to the presidency was no exception. Critics --- and there were many --- considered him a nobody, a lightweight. Truman himself said, “I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.” No wonder: one of his first decisions was to drop the atom bomb on Japan.

He went on to lead America into the Marshall Plan, probably the most important step in saving Western Europe from Soviet domination, and perhaps the only time in history when the victor lifted the vanquished off their knees. His reelection in 1948 was another instance of Truman pluck overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds. The famous photo of a victorious Harry, holding aloft the Chicago Tribune’s headline “Dewey Defeats Truman,” says it all.

As McCullough sums it up, “He was not without flaw…. [but] Principle mattered more than his own political hide. His courage was the courage of his convictions….” The question for November 2008 is: who among the candidates can make a similar claim? If I knew the answer to that, I’d know who should have my vote.



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