Bush and Truman
President Bush, we have been hearing for at least a year, likes to compare himself to Harry Truman, who spent the last two years of his Presidency with approval ratings at least as low as his own, largely because of an unpopular war. The resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales provides an interesting test of that comparison because President Truman, at the same point in his presidency, also had to deal with the problem of an embattled cabinet member—Secretary of State Dean Acheson.
Acheson, a conservative Democrat and a leading Washington attorney, had taken over from George C. Marshall as Secretary of State in 1949. A brilliant, imposing and often arrogant man, he had continued his predecessor’s critical work in Western Europe, including the Marshall Plan, the building up of NATO, and, after 1950, the first steps towards the rearmament of Germany. He had to try to explain to Congress and the American people why the United States was not intervening to stop a Communist victory in the latter stages of the Chinese civil war—in retrospect, a wise decision—and he was also involved in the decisions to develop the hydrogen bomb and to fight in Korea. And meanwhile, beginning in February 1950, he had to deal with Senator Joseph McCarthy’s reckless accusations of dozens, or hundreds, of known Communists working in the State Department (the numbers changed almost every day, but the nature of the accusations and the lack of any proof did not.) At almost the same moment, in January 1950, Acheson’s own loyalty to two friends—Alger Hiss and Hiss’s brother Donald, who had been one of his law partners at Covington & Burling—gave his opponents an irresistible opportunity. Asked in January 1950 for a comment on Hiss’s conviction for perjury (because he had denied giving State Department documents to Soviet spy Whittaker Chambers), Acheson replied that whatever happened, “I am not going to turn my back on Alger Hiss.” The hue and cry began immediately and lasted for a full two years.
A Proquest search for the keywords “Acheson” and “resign” for the years 1950-2 turns up 160 entries. Virtually every leading Republican officeholder joined the hue and cry, including Senator Robert Taft (widely assumed to be the 1952 candidate), Governor Harold Stassen of Minnesota (another leading candidate), Congressman Walter Judd of Minnesota, McCarthy, and, by 1951, a newly elected Senator from California named Richard Nixon. They blamed Acheson for the Korean War because he had refused to state that the United States would definitely defend South Korea if it were attacked in March 1950, but it was Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson, who had been cutting the defense budget for several years, who resigned instead. In 1951 Republicans in the House of Representatives floated the idea of forbidding the State Department from paying Acheson’s salary in an Appropriations Bill, but dropped it. By that time even friendly columnists were suggesting that Acheson had become too much of a political liability to keep, but he stayed in office. The hue and cry resumed after Truman fired another leading figure—General Douglas MacArthur—but to no avail.
President Truman stuck by Acheson for several reasons. Truman himself was loyal to a fault. After Acheson had refused to condemn Hiss, he remarked to the Secretary that he himself had recently taken some heat for attending the funeral of Tom Prendergast, the Kansas City machine boss who had given him his start in politics and who had died not long after emerging from prison. He kept General Harry Vaughn, his military aid, in the White House even though Vaughn was involved in several influence-peddling scandals. But more importantly, Truman simply recognized the attacks on Acheson for what they were—pure partisanship, frequently of the most irresponsible kind—and understood how much critical work the State Department, now under continual attack from McCarthy, Nixon and others, was accomplishing. I am not myself an unreserved admirer of Acheson’s diplomacy by any means. He focused on strengthening the western alliance to the exclusion of any possibility of accommodation with Communist adversaries—a position that led to his estrangement from George Kennan, whom he eventually replaced as director of his Policy Planning Staff with the more hawkish Paul Nitze. He had little understanding of or sympathy for developments in the third world, and endorsed the decision to help the French in Indochina in order to keep them on board for NATO in Europe. He was, as his own memoirs show, every bit as arrogant, if much less verbose, than Henry Kissinger, and he clearly did feel that he was too good for many of his countrymen. But for all that, he was an extremely effective Secretary of State, and he had not, in fact, done anything wrong. During the 1952 campaign Nixon accused Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic Presidential candidate, of having earned a Ph.D from “Acheson’s College of Cowardly Communist Containment,” but Eisenhower failed to find a new policy when he got into office.
Truman repeatedly refused Acheson’s offers to resign and the two men left office together on January 20, 1953.
Surely it is not too soon to note the critical difference in these two cases. Although Acheson had certainly made some debatable decisions and a controversial public statement, he had conducted his office honestly and he had never shrunk from giving the Congress and the people a full accounting. Gonzales was deeply involved in the politicization of the Justice Department and refused to “recall” what he had done, and when. Unlike Acheson, he acted like a man with something to hide. What is noteworthy, however, is the contrast between Truman’s repeated, straightforward affirmations of support for Acheson, and President Bush’s statement yesterday. Here it is.
“This morning, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced that he will leave the Department of Justice, after two and a half years of service to the department. Al Gonzales is a man of integrity, decency and principle. And I have reluctantly accepted his resignation, with great appreciation for the service that he has provided for our country.
As Attorney General and before that, as White House counsel, Al Gonzales has played a role in shaping our policies in the war on terror, and has worked tirelessly to make this country safer. The Patriot Act, the Military Commissions Act and other important laws bear his imprint. Under his leadership, the Justice Department has made a priority of protecting children from Internet predators, and made enforcement of civil rights laws a top priority. He aggressively and successfully pursued public corruption and effectively combated gang violence.
“As Attorney General he played an important role in helping to confirm two fine jurists in Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito. He did an outstanding job as White House Counsel, identifying and recommending the best nominees to fill critically important federal court vacancies.
“Alberto Gonzales's tenure as Attorney General and White House Counsel is only part of a long history of distinguished public service that began as a young man when, after high school, he enlisted in the United States Air Force. When I became governor of Texas in 1995, I recruited him from one of Texas's most prestigious law firms to be my general counsel. He went on to become Texas's 100th secretary of state and to serve on our state's supreme court. In the long course of our work together this trusted advisor became a close friend.
“These various positions have required sacrifice from Al, his wife Becky, their sons Jared, Graham and Gabriel, and I thank them for their service to the country.
After months of unfair treatment that has created a harmful distraction at the Justice Department, Judge Gonzales decided to resign his position, and I accept his decision. It's sad that we live in a time when a talented and honorable person like Alberto Gonzales is impeded from doing important work because his good name was dragged through the mud for political reasons.
“I've asked Solicitor General Paul Clement to serve as Acting Attorney General upon Alberto Gonzales's departure and until a nominee has been confirmed by the Senate. He's agreed to do so. Paul is one of the finest lawyers in America. As Solicitor General, Paul has developed a reputation for excellence and fairness, and earned the respect and confidence of the entire Justice Department.
In other words, the President tells us, although Attorney General Gonzales has performed brilliantly and has done nothing wrong, he has to resign because of purely partisan political attacks—exactly what Truman refused to let Acheson do. Bush may know (perhaps because of some impending bombshell involving Gonzales, Karl Rove, or both) that the Attorney General’s position was about to become completely untenable. But in any case, he is proving once again that the slogan he likes to use to characterize the days of his youth—“If it feels good, do it, and if you’ve got a problem, blame some one else”—is nothing but projection of the most blatant kind. His Attorney General has to quit—but it’s all the fault of those wicked Democrats.
Mr. President—you’re no Harry Truman.
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Vernon Clayson - 9/1/2007
Bush is no Truman, certainly that is true, but Truman wasn't like Bush either. Truman was truculent, Bush is merely stubborn and it would serve him better to become truculent. I cannot imagine Truman replying politely to David Gregory's insulting questions, Bush should tell Gregory that he is a pain in the ass and should grow up. He should say the same to Tim Russell, Chris Matthews and Keith Olberman.
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