Columns » Ernest Dumas

Trumanesque?

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Breaking the long drought of good political news last week was a prayer answered. A Harry Truman Democrat was thinking about running for the United States Senate from Arkansas.

In a season when the best that the Democrats can do are weathercocks and the best of the Republicans are born-again McCarthys, we have at last an unmincing truthteller, a knock-off of Give-‘em-hell Harry, a politician who would risk his career rather than cater to the bellowing rabble and fail to do what he knew in his heart to be right.

It was too good to believe, but Roby Brock had him on the record. State Sen. Bob Johnson of Bigelow, the president of the state Senate, said people were beseeching him to run against U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln for the Democratic nomination and he was listening. The times call for a “Truman Democrat” and he said that's what he was.

Johnson had established a small reputation as a deal-maker and master logroller, the best of the term-limited generation of Arkansas lawmakers at the craft of building and controlling an enduring coalition of normally aimless legislators. That was not exactly Harry Truman, but no one knew anything about Johnson's ideology. Like Truman, he apparently was an uncompromising progressive, though still in the closet.

Boy, do we ever need a Truman Democrat, even one. It is the season for Harry Truman. All the issues over which he fought a reactionary Congress have matured again in 2009.

In the fall of 1945, not long after taking the oath, Truman sent Congress the longest message since Teddy Roosevelt, outlining a sweeping progressive agenda that made Franklin Roosevelt seem timid. In the shadow of a mountainous national debt (bigger proportionally than ours today), instead of retrenching and cutting taxes as the Republicans wanted, he proposed a massive plan to rebuild war-torn Europe, a bigger minimum wage and unemployment insurance, crop insurance for farmers, tougher fair-employment practices and continued regulation of banking and industry.

When Republicans and some Democrats said they were not going to let him name a lefty, David Lilienthal of the TVA, to the Atomic Energy Commission, Truman called the shellshocked Lilienthal in and told him that he was going to stick with him for exactly 150 years, so buck up.

When FDR's son Jimmy was telling people they needed to find another Democrat for the 1948 presidential race, Truman met him at the Ambassador Hotel and told him: “Your father asked me to take this job. I didn't want it. And if your father knew what you are doing to me he would turn over in his grave. But get this straight: Whether you like it or not, I am going to be the next president of the United States. That will be all. Good day.”

But here is the real deal. We would have a senator who this fall would be championing a national health care system, Medicare for everyone. That was Truman's dream. He proposed guaranteeing the same quality medical care to every American regardless of their income and having it cover mental health care as well. He would pay for it through payroll taxes like Social Security and, eventually, Medicare. A public option? Too weak, he would say.

He might go across the land, as he did in 1948, and ask, “Are the privileged boys going to run the country, or are the people going to run it?”

When Wilbur Mills of Kensett, Ark., wrote the Medicare bill and President Johnson signed it in 1965 Truman and his wife, Bess, signed up for the first Medicare cards.

A Truman Democrat wouldn't be temporizing over the union card-check bill, as our Democrats are today. A rash of strikes in the 18 months after the war's end frightened lots of people so Sen. Robert Taft wrote a punitive anti-labor bill — known as Taft-Hartley — dramatically overhauling the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 to shift the workplace balance sharply back to management, where it has remained ever since.

 All Truman's advisers and all his cabinet except two urged him to do the popular thing and sign the bill. He studied every line of it and vetoed it. It violated basic democratic principles, he said.

As in the card-check controversy today, the Republicans and the management side said it was a bill to protect workers from tyrannical labor bosses. (See the newspaper ads this week complimenting our senators for protecting the workers.) Truman knew better and said so. Congress passed Taft-Hartley over his veto, and he vowed to repeal it before he left office. He never got to.

Go, Bob Johnson!

But now comes John Brummett, the spoilsport columnist for the Stephens media, who knows Johnson better than the rest of us and reveals that he would go at Lincoln from the other direction. He would be more like the Republicans. He would more likely oppose all those things Truman stood for. He apparently would be like all the Republicans from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush who have tried to associate themselves with the historical Harry Truman because of his image of crustiness and courage but don't care a whit for anything he stood for.

Oh! Well, never mind.

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