ON ELECTION DAY, Establishment big shots were certain that America wanted change and that the suave, sophisticated challenger had to beat the blunt, plain, downright embarrassing incumbent. All day long they were certain. At midnight the famous radio commentator H.V. Kaltenborn summed up the position: Harry Truman was 1.2 million votes ahead, but Thomas Dewey was going to win. At 4 A.M., Kaltenborn issued an update. Truman was more than 2 million votes ahead, and Dewey was still going to win. At 10:30 the next morning, Dewey sent Truman a telegram of concession.
When it was all over, Truman's victory margin was 4.4 percentage points; Bush's margin is a little thinner. But Truman won without a majority: He got 49.5 percent of the popular vote. (There were two bonus candidates that year: the "Progressive" Henry Wallace and Strom Thurmond the Dixiecrat.) George W. Bush is the first president in 16 years to win an absolute majority.
The elections of 1948 and 2004 resemble each other in many ways. But there are deeper analogies in play too. The plain-spoken moralist for whom religion matters greatly, the common man who seems too small for the presidency but is confronted in office by a cataclysm that re-creates him; who rises to the challenge and transcends it; who faces a tough re-election battle and wins it; who redefines the nation's mission in the world and emerges a hero--that is a traditional American story. It is Lincoln's story. (In summer 1864, prominent Republicans wanted to find a stronger candidate.) No president matches Lincoln's greatness, but in modern times this was Harry Truman's story; and today it is George W. Bush's also.
In 1948, the Democratic incumbent beat the Republican challenger. The year 2004 saw a replay of that election upside-down--which tells us something about the current meanings of "Democrat" and "Republican." Today the Democrats are the timid reactionary party with strong isolationist tendencies. Today "Democrat" equals "Reactionary Liberal." Republicans are the bold internationalist progressives--the "Tory Democrats" envisioned by Benjamin Disraeli, creator of modern conservatism, and by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, its late-20th-century champions.
Kerry 2004 was a lot like Dewey '48: the stylish Establishment candidate. No one could figure out exactly where he stood, but it didn't matter. He was bound to win. Bush 2004 was a lot like Truman '48: the unstylish former businessman. Both men served in the National Guard. (Truman's unit was sent to France during the First World War, and the future president served with distinction.) Bush, like Truman, did fine in local politics, was well liked by all sorts of people--but never planned to be president. Bush, like Truman, took office with no clear worldview or plan of action--but with non-negotiable moral principles. Both men developed a worldview and plan of action when they needed to, and moved up boldly to take their places in the front line of world struggle and the long line of American heroism.
Bush and Truman each redefined America's world mission for a new era by reapplying traditional American principles. When Truman became president on the death of Franklin Roosevelt in April 1945, World War II was still underway and Soviet Russia was America's more-or-less trusted ally. Roosevelt had been reluctant to heed Churchill's worried warnings about Stalin. To Churchill it was increasingly clear that Stalin would be a dangerous man after the war, with much of Eastern and Central Europe in his gigantic, triumphant Red Army's grip. Truman was uncertain at first. But before long, the Soviet Empire reared up like a killer tidal wave, and it was up to Truman to decline or accept the challenge--to lead America's retreat back into its isolationist hole or to stand up to Stalin and announce: "Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further; and here shall thy proud waves be stayed." He accepted the challenge. In March 1947 he proclaimed the Truman Doctrine in a speech to Congress. "I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressure." That remained U.S. policy until the Cold War was won almost half a century later.
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.