Anger and politics

Posted: Jul 18, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Richard Cohen, Washington Post columnist, has been provoked by recent revelations about President Harry Truman to asseverate in all his comely humility that "It is ... a good thing that he (Truman) did not express his feelings to someone like me, because -- had the Secret Service not been around -- I would have decked him."

Poor Harry, what did he say all those years ago that brings the he-man out of this otherwise exquisite moral conscience?

History is the greatest of the humanities. To remind us of its consequentiality it leaves specimens of itself around for later generations to discover to their amazement and edification. The other day, Cohen along with millions of other Americans, discovered a specimen of the first half of the last century, when the contents of a hitherto undiscovered diary from 1947 was made public by the National Archives.

The 5,500-word diary was in the handwriting of President Truman. It had been found scrawled in the diary section of a book that had been gathering dust in the Truman Library for decades, and rightly so. The book's title is, alas, "The Real Estate Board of New York, Inc., Diary and Manual 1947." Not surprisingly, visiting historians dismissed it as an old reference book, devoid of much value to them in their reconstructions of Truman. They were thunderously wrong.

The diary section can be read as a personal confession from the president to his mother or perhaps to a sympathetic friend seated with him at the end of the bar. In smoldering dudgeon, the 33rd president opined, "The Jews have no sense of proportion nor do they have any judgement (a popular spelling in the 1940s) on world affairs."

He had been provoked by a call he had received from his Jewish former secretary of the treasury, Henry Morgenthau. Morgenthau was seeking Truman's assistance on behalf of a group of Jewish refugees from Hitler's Europe. That irritated Truman.

"The Jews, I find are very, very selfish. They care not how many Estonians, Latvians, Finns, Poles, Yugoslavs or Greeks get murdered or mistreated as D(isplaced) P(ersons). ..." And the president's rant went on to embrace other matters, "When the country went backward -- and Republican -- in the election of 1946, this incident (another occasion when Morgenthau assisted Jewish refugees) loomed large on the D(isplaced) P(ersons) program."

Americans have come to admire Harry Truman as a flinty defender of American interests. He was a doughty combatant and a very good president, at least in foreign affairs. Not surprisingly, we have forgotten just how much controversy his administration found itself in.

He was apparently honest, but nearly a dozen members of his government were convicted of criminal behavior, including his appointments secretary. He was also a fiery partisan. Readers of his very informative memoirs will note that he has rarely a generous word for those who oppose him. His remark, that "the country went backward" in 1946, is typical. In his memoirs, he lumps isolationists such as Sen. Robert Taft in with Ku Kluxers and members of the far-right Silver Shirts -- and he was not being facetious. To him, most Republicans were reactionaries, and he was not any gentler toward those political parties on his left.

The New York Sun has published specimens of his prejudices against other ethnic and religious groups -- for instance, the Chinese and "Japs" whom he told his wife he "hate(ed)." Blacks, "wops" and others came off no better in his private reflections. When I read these outbursts, I was at first startled, but then I thought back about the America of the early 20th century. Its citizens almost all had strong prejudices.

An important thing to remember is that America has changed. Few people hold such strong beliefs today, even in private. What is more, Truman's generation began an effort to mollify such prejudices and to extend tolerance to all. As for Truman, his public policies favored equal rights and statehood for Israel. Those policies were not easily implemented. History proceeds slowly.

The irascible, bigoted Harry Truman that again stands revealed in this long-ignored specimen of history brings to mind another truth that, since the political battles of the 1990s, I have become very aware of. Political commitment breeds anger and animosity. The 33rd president was for all his faults a decent man, but like most politically committed people he came to dislike and distrust those who opposed him. In the 1940s, he could become very angry with Morgenthau for the former secretary of state's importunities on behalf of Jewish refugees. In reading his memoirs, you will see he had an even more intense ire for Republicans. Naturally, Republicans had the same view of him. Politics breeds contempt.

In the 1990s, a president was caught in obvious ethical and legal violations. What saved him was the mutual contempt the political parties hold for each other. Hillary Rodham Clinton's memoirs are as angry toward Republicans as were Truman's, and you can be sure if Newt Gingrich ever quiets down long enough to produce a memoir, he will match them both in spite.

Harry Truman is not the only politician made angry by politics. A more intriguing point for me would be to know how many members of the political class enter politics free of anger. In my experience, the only one I knew who seemed to be free of anger was Ronald Reagan, for whom Richard Cohen has few charitable thoughts.