He walked into history an obscure, flat footed, bantamy little fellow in a light gray suit, the inhabitant of an eloquence-free zone who gave boring speeches in a flat voice. He was not compelling. This was more obvious because he followed a charismatic leader who did big things and filled the screen. He was quickly defined and dismissed by the opinion elite as “a first-rate second-rate man.” And maybe at the beginning he feared the appraisal was correct, for when he became president he said very frankly that he felt the moon and the stars had fallen upon him.
Why would he expect people to be impressed by him, to see him as a leader? His background: a failed businessman who wanted to rise in politics but was forced to do it through a corrupt local political machine. He worked and rose within it, doing his best to hold onto his integrity. He achieved local office, and then shocked everyone when the machine picked him to run for the U.S. Senate and he actually won. He served a term with mild distinction and then through an accident of history became president because—well, because history can be antic, unknowable, full of tricks.
His name of course was Harry Truman, and to him fell the hard and hellish job of keeping the world up at a terrible time. He made tough decisions at the toughest moments—admitting, as his predecessor never did or could, exactly who “Uncle Joe” Stalin was and what he wanted, stopping him in Greece, pushing through the Marshall Plan to save Europe and getting the money for it from a depleted American public, fighting a land war in Korea. All this when his exhausted nation—we had been through two world wars in 25 years—did not want another war, and needed to be rallied.
He stopped or thwarted communism wherever he could, fought like a tiger, faced down the most admired American general of the day and canned him for overstepping his bounds, made the crucial and horrific decision to drop the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and took the responsibility himself to the extent that when the head of the Manhattan Project came to him and said he feared he had blood on his hands, Truman took out his handkerchief and wiped J. Robert Oppenheimer’s hands, and said no, I made the decision, the responsibility is mine.
Harry Truman was a great man. And I believe we are seeing the makings of a similar greatness in George W. Bush, the bantamy, plain-spoken, originally uninspiring man who through a good heart and a good head, through gut and character, simple well-meaningness and love of country is, in his own noncompelling way, doing the right tough things at a terrible time.
And he faces stakes as high as Truman faced, if not, as many think, higher. Truman had to stand for freedom and keep the West together while keeping Stalin from getting and then using weapons that he could, in his evil, use to blow up half the world. Mr. Bush has to stand for freedom and keep an alliance together while moving against a dozen madmen who have it within their power to deploy weapons of mass destruction that can blow up half the world. He has to see to it that this great mission doesn’t end with getting or killing Osama and his men. He must lead the civilized world now to root out, get and remove every weapon of mass destruction—every chemical and bio depot and laboratory in every rogue nation—and banish this scourge from the world. It will be hard to keep the allies on board and supportive, hard to keep the American people behind him, because it’s going to be a long war.
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Mr. Bush also followed a charismatic leader, and I do not mean Mr. Clinton. Mr. Clinton, whose eight years in the presidency could be compressed like an accordion into one inch of meaning, was no FDR. The charismatic figure Mr. Bush follows is the last big American president, the last who had the massive presence of a battleship, Ronald Reagan.
People kept wondering last year during the election if Mr. Bush had it in him to be a Reagan. I thought maybe he did. But now as I watch him I think: Truman.
Harry Truman did it all through gut and instinct and character. He was a good man who loved his country. He loved to read history and could quote Ovid, but he was no intellectual, not a man of strikingly original thought; his mind wasn’t so much creative as quick, and solid as a rock. He grew into the job, on a steep learning curve, forced by history to absorb facts and decide quickly. He didn’t know about the atom bomb until the first week of his presidency.
Mr. Bush has been on a similar steep curve, forced to absorb and decide quickly, and his decisions too seem to have been issued from a mind that’s quick and solid as a rock.
In the early days of the current struggle he immediately understood the situation—“We are at war”—but did not immediately strike back. He seemed, at first, in the day after Sept. 11, to have been as shocked by history as Harry Truman—the moon and the stars had fallen upon him. He was eight months into a new presidency, and now all the facts of the world changed. But he righted himself as Truman did, and he made his plans. There were no showy and meaningless kabooms with our missiles hitting aspirin factories in the desert. Instead Mr. Bush prepared, pushed, waited and struck—and now the Taliban are on the run and Afghanistan is teetering on something that whatever it is will surely be better than what it had been. Al Qaeda is not done, but as Mr. Bush said again yesterday in his news conference with President Vladimir Putin, we will not rest until it is.
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It was in that remarkable news conference that Mr. Bush displayed once again in public what is reported of him in private—that he has an instinctive command in his private dealings, a way of appealing to his guests with a well-meaning warmth that is both ingenuous and . . . yet another little weapon in the Bush armory, an armory whose job it is to provide him with what he needs to get what he wants. In this case and for some time now what he wants has been a personal bond with President Putin that both reflects and promotes a new and deep alliance between America and Russia.
“It all starts with the human element,” he said yesterday. And of course that personal element was much in evidence, and yielded a news conference between an American president and a Russian leader the likes of which has never been seen in history. “Yesterday we tasted steak and listened to music and did all of this to increase the understanding between peoples,” said Mr. Putin. He especially liked the barbecue: “When I asked the president he said, ‘Indeed this cannot be done except for in Texas.’ ”
It would be naive to see this as anything more than a charming routine by two men in a charming mood if it were not also clear that, as Mr. Putin said, serious discussions had been held. And though some issues remained open, Mr. Putin announced, “We will arrive at a conclusion acceptable to Russia, the United States and indeed the entire world.”
Mr. Bush was at his best, and I realized there is a way you can tell that he is and knows he is in full command. He signals it by talking the way he talks; that is, he signals it through bad grammar, or if you will highly colloquial usage. When Mr. Bush is uncomfortable or being formal he says, “The tax structure in Russia is exemplary in many ways.” When Mr. Bush is in full command he says, as he did yesterday, “And by the way they got a flat tax in Russia.” They got one indeed, and it’s turnin’ that country ‘round big-time. (English teachers across the country are going to have to get used to saying, “It is good to listen to this nice man’s thoughts but not to adopt his usage.”)
You also know when Mr. Bush is in full command when he’s not afraid to let his merriness out. His natural verbal style is Texas wise-guy: asked by a student if he had any advice for her life he said, “Yeah, listen to your mother.” This got a lot of laughter but then, to show respect for a child who asked an honest question, he turned serious, and what he said was moving. “Follow your dreams. . . . You never know where life’s gonna take ya. I never sat and thought, ‘Gosh, if I work hard I’ll be president of the United States.’ It wasn’t in my vocabulary. But you never know. You never know. Trust the Lord.”
Harry Truman couldn’t have said it better himself.
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I wrote to one of Mr. Bush’s aides the other day, a smart and gifted man, and he sent back a note saying the most moving thing that has happened to him the past two months is “seeing that George Bush is a great man—a truly great man.”
He meant it sincerely, and would not have said it to me if he did not think it. And it reminded me of something. I spent a lot of the year 2000 writing about Mr. Bush when he was running for president, and stating in these pages and elsewhere that I felt he had potential greatness in him. This seemed to some of my friends absurd. He didn’t look great or act great; he looked like an aging preppy fortunate son.
But there’s an odd thing about presidents. Sometimes you can meet a man on his way up in politics and you can see the president within. There were people who met Ronald Reagan in the 1950s and ‘60s and who saw—one wrote a notarized letter so he could prove decades hence that he had seen it—that Ronald Reagan would be president one day, and a great one. There were people who met Jack Kennedy and thought: president.
But no one met young Harry Truman and started hearing “Hail to the Chief,” and no one even 13 years ago, in 1988, met George Bush Jr., as he was then called, and saw the president within. I certainly didn’t.
But life is funny, and what matters is that Mr. Bush has found the president within. I think he knows he’s going to be a great one, and that’s significant because all the great ones always know it somewhere inside. Even Truman did, eventually.