Montana Viewpoint: Trump could learn from Truman

Truman

Harry S. Truman: He learned to bear the load of being president.

As a fourth-grader, when the siren heralded the air raid drill I dutifully crawled under my desk and put my hands over my head and didn’t move until the all-clear sounded. During the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 I was as scared as anybody that the Russians were going to bomb us to oblivion and vice-versa.

Now, with North Korea and Russia and the United States bragging about their nuclear capacity, I mostly just hope for the best because there’s not a thing I can do about it. 

Jim

Jim Elliott

These days my main question is, “Who’s in charge?” Washington seems far too confused and confusing to lead the world … or America, for that matter.

I’m used to politicians. If they share anything in common it’s big egos and thin skins. If you were surrounded all the time by people who told you how great you were, you’d get a big ego, too. And if you were publicly criticized and berated, you wouldn’t like it but you would do your best to grow armor-plated skin and shrug it off.

It is all easier said than done. In spite of the ego and thin skin, an important attribute that good politicians have is a sense of the impact of what they do on those they serve.  A sense of what is called the “gravitas” of their position. Harry Truman understood it in spades when he became president on Roosevelt’s death, a task for which he was almost totally unprepared.

“Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now,” he said to the press on his first day as president. “I don’t know if you fellas have ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me what happened yesterday I felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on me.”

Truman, like many other leaders, rose to the task and guided America through some hard times. For months I have been hoping that President Trump would experience the load-of-hay effect and get to the business of governing, but by now I’ve pretty much given up hope. And, honestly, I have wished for his success whether or not I agreed with him because his success, in some way, would be the success of America. And his failure ours to reckon with.

Many in the media have made a sport of criticizing him, often deservedly, just as often gratuitously. Whichever, it has gotten under his skin to the point that he spends more time responding to criticism than governing. There is little of “grace under pressure,” and there is a lot of needless distraction.

I know many people feel that Trump is on the right path; that America can and should go it alone against the world, that it is good that we make our former allies our current enemies, that “jobs” and economic prosperity will be ours for eternity.

I am not one of them. I see international alliances (many of them built by Truman) that have kept the world safe from widespread war crumbling because nations are either being insulted or ignored. I see America itself being ignored as a world power because we are seen as no longer reliable.

Diplomacy is important. You don’t needlessly antagonize your enemies and you certainly don’t antagonize your friends. You do not belittle people who are on your side. If you have no confidence in your staff, you tell your staff, not the world.

Being president is not something you can wing. It is serious, and requires calm thoughtfulness, and I pray that one morning — soon — our president will wake up and understand that.

Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek. Montana Viewpoint appears in weekly newspapers across Montana and online at Last Best News and Missoula Current.

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