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Truman Beats Dewey! Again!!

From the November 15, 2004 issue: The plain-spoken square triumphs once more.

Nov 15, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 09 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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In Bush's first term he, too, faced an enormous looming danger. The disaster of 9/11 was closely connected to decades of previous history. No matter what religion or ideology they profess, terrorism and totalitarianism have been closely associated since the First World War. In Truman's time, the Soviets succeeded the Nazis as the world's leading terrorist-totalitarian power. When the Soviets collapsed, Arab terrorists and thug-dictators were ready for prime time. The year after the Berlin Wall fell, Saddam Hussein marched into Kuwait. Radical Arabs had long posed a deadly threat to America--but the slaughter of thousands on American soil demanded a new policy. America had to confront the far-flung enemy and fight hard until it was beaten. Bush rose to the challenge--and in November 2004 the American public ratified his boldness, as it had ratified Truman's on another November day 56 years before.

Two hard-headed, blunt-spoken pragmatists--each of whom embodied (for his own age and time) the world's vision of the perfect middle-aged, middle-American square. Both men followed presidents (FDR and Clinton) who were far slicker, more stylish, more articulate than they. They both beat challengers who were likewise. Walter Winchell (or someone) is supposed to have called Dewey "the little man on top of the wedding cake." Standards have changed: Kerry reflects the latest in high-style American manhood. But it didn't matter. The U.S. electorate has confirmed once again that America is not France.

We underestimate the extent of Truman's Christian, Bible-centered piety--in part because historians underestimate it. But if you listen to Truman, the Bible is there on the soundtrack. (He ended his first talk to Congress: "I humbly pray God in the words of King Solomon, 'Give therefore Thy servant an understanding heart to judge Thy people, that I may discern good and bad: for who is able to judge this Thy so great a people?'" He concluded his opening message to the brand new United Nations: "May He lead our steps in His own righteous path of peace.") Bush's piety will always be remembered in terms of Al Gore's disgraceful description of the president's faith: "the American version of the same fundamentalist impulse that we see in Saudi Arabia, in Kashmir, and in many religions around the world." But for Truman and Bush both, faith counted heavily when the storm broke and they had to steer straight in mountainous seas.

Truman was ridiculed and despised during his presidency and for many years afterward. Today we see him more clearly. He made lots of mistakes. He was no genius and no one ever mistook him for one. (Least of all Truman himself.) And yet: He didn't give a damn what anyone thought of him. He wanted to do right, and to put America in the right, and to see America thrive. Harry Truman, provincial hick, was the last man you'd ever have cast in the role of farsighted American hero--assuming you knew nothing about America. In the event he rejected isolationism, accepted the challenge, joined the fight, and did us proud. George W. Bush has done likewise.

One day Bush will depart the presidency. He will leave the nation transformed; and when he goes, people will praise him the way Eisenhower praised Truman after Election Day '48, for his "stark courage and fighting heart." Or maybe they will say what Truman told the nation about FDR, in Archibald MacLeish's words--"The courage of great men outlives them to become the courage of their people and the peoples of the world." Yet the greatest achievement, now as in '48, is the American people's. America really doesn't give a damn what Europe or the New York Times or Hollywood or the worldwide professoriate has to say. It tries hard to do right, and more often than not it succeeds.

David Gelernter is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.