Paul Greenberg

A stubborn president, determined to end a war that has bogged down, watches his standing in the polls slip month by month, year by year. His dramatic victory in the last presidential election now seems long ago; his popularity sinks to historic lows for an American president. He has become an object of derision and even a little pity. As one wit put it, “To err is Truman.”

And yet, confident that he had chosen the right course and that he would be vindicated by history, Harry Truman struggled on. He would leave the White House with his popular standing at low ebb, yet today he would get high marks for his courage, vision and persistence. For his administration set the country’s course toward eventual victory in the Cold War. And he held to it despite all the pressures, doubts and jibes he encountered.

Addressing the graduating class at West Point this year, no wonder another embattled president would look back at Harry Truman’s troubled tenure and ask the country to take heart. Here is what George W. Bush told the class of ’06:

“As President Truman put it towards the end of his presidency, ‘When history says that my term of office saw the beginning of the Cold War, it will also say that in those eight years we set the course that can win it.’ His leadership paved the way for subsequent presidents from both political parties — men like Eisenhower, Kennedy and Reagan — to confront and eventually defeat the Soviet threat. Today, at the start of a new century, we are again engaged in a war unlike any our nation has fought before, and like Americans in Truman’s day, we are laying the foundations for victory.”

The war on terror promises to be another long, twilight struggle flickering around the globe and bursting into flames here and there — in Afghanistan, then Iraq. It is never easy to demonstrate constancy of purpose in American foreign policy, for we Americans are an impatient people. And once again we find ourselves in what will surely be another protracted struggle with a ruthless enemy.

No doubt many a difficult time lies ahead, but in the end, if the example of Harry Truman and his successors in the Oval Office is any indication, the American people will see it through. And freedom will again prevail. If we are an impatient people, we can also be a determined one. In choosing his historical model in HST, GWB has chosen well.

This president need not stop with foreign policy when it comes to drawing parallels with the Truman administration. For when Harry Truman abolished racial segregation in the armed forces, appointed a presidential commission on civil rights and pushed for a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission, he set the course for the country’s long, long march toward a decent respect for the rights of all.

His decisions infuriated the Southern wing of his own party, but the criticism did not deter him. The man from Independence pressed on, and so did the country.

Today another president is trying to find a way for American society to assimilate the millions of Hispanic immigrants now in this country without papers, many of whom have been here for years, put down roots and are raising their children and grandchildren as Americans.

While recognizing the need to strengthen our borders, this president also understands that these immigrants represent a critical resource for the American economy and nation. Yet they are no longer residents of their home country nor citizens here. Neglected and ignored, they threaten to become the kind of permanent underclass that guest workers represent in many a European country — they’re in the country but not of it. And their presence has become a growing source of tension.

Surely Americans cannot envy this kind of dangerous, divisive arrangement. But we invite it by not addressing it. The longer we wait, the greater the danger grows.

Can you think of a better way to poison a democratic society than to divide it into two classes — those who enjoy all the benefits and share in all the responsibilities of citizenship, and those ineligible for citizenship and restricted to the role of guest workers?

Didn’t a vaguely similar division — that between free citizens and slave laborers — lead to a disastrous civil war in this country once before?

This president is running into strong opposition from those who would prefer to ignore the problem, or pretend there is some simple answer to it, like deporting millions, rather than adopt a rational immigration policy that would allow people to earn citizenship and become full-fledged Americans.

George W. Bush, like Harry S. Truman before him, is taking a principled stand in the faith that, even if his position offends much of his own party, it is the right one for his country.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.