Taking a leap of faith on the presidency - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Taking a leap of faith on the presidency

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Posted: Sunday, April 27, 2008 4:04 am | Updated: 12:08 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Don't take a leap of faith in choosing the next president, Hillary Rodham Clinton tells us.

Take out the guesswork. Take no chances. If only.

Clinton's ad designers thought it clever to punctuate her latest doomsday message with President Harry Truman's famous quip about getting out of a hot kitchen.

Better that they should have revisited his earliest days as commander in chief for some schooling in just what a leap of faith the American people take with every new "world's most powerful leader."

Thrust into job

Sworn in as president on April 12, 1945, on a Gideon Bible found in a drawer, Truman hadn't been intimately involved in Franklin D. Roosevelt's foreign policy formulation, according to exhibits at the Truman Library in Independence, Mo.

But by May 2, Berlin had fallen. Six days later, Germany surrendered, ending World War II in Europe.

That June, nations from across the world approved the U.N. Charter.

In July, Truman met with Josef Stalin, Winston Churchill and Clement Atlee to discuss postwar treatment of Germany.

By August, Truman was deciding to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to force Japan's surrender.

He followed up in November by proposing a national health care program that the American Medical Association attacked as "socialized medicine." (See www.trumanlibrary.org/anniversaries/healthprogram.htm.)

Granted, Truman was thrust into the presidency by Roosevelt's sudden death. But the point is, who knew? How were voters to know when they confidently elected Roosevelt to a fourth term that they weren't choosing his running mate just as an also-ran?

Who knew that the nation was getting a leader who would authorize the use of devastating weapons that would abruptly end WWII and shape the peace that followed?

When the American people consciously took a leap with Truman in 1948, they got a president who sent troops to Korea and tried to seize the railroads and steel mills to avoid strikes.

They've similarly voted their hopes as much as their intellect almost every election since: an untested senator, a supposedly washed-up one-time vice president, a couple of lesser-known governors, a former B-movie actor, an ex-president's son.

And for all their claims to wisdom, experience and well-laid plans, the men who have won the job have gone into office with only tenuous control over their destinies and ours.

When he was running, did John F. Kennedy imagine facing down Nikita Khrushchev over nuclear warheads in Cuba?

Did Jimmy Carter prepare for oil shortages or a hostage crisis in Iran?

Should voters have expected that Bill Clinton's personal misbehavior would nearly implode his administration?

Even if George W. Bush had been a more capable, seasoned leader, could he have guessed that terrorists would strike the heart of our country just eight months into his term?

How do voters - or candidates, for that matter - eliminate the guesswork?

Presidents can set goals, agendas and expectations. Presidents can bring to the office their experience at developing policies, making decisions, anticipating problems and inspiring the masses. Their success also rests heavily on their choice of advisers and staffers - and the role they're allowed to play.

Taking chances

Not long ago, I finally got around to reading "The Best and the Brightest," David Halberstam's 1972 study of how advisers with seemingly impeccable credentials gave bad counsel, for the wrong reasons, that led two presidents down a devastating path in Vietnam.

There were depressing parallels to Bush's decisions on Iraq, pushed by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and others who not only shaped damaging policies but have been responsible for real evil.

Voters have to look not just at what the presidential candidates have been through but at the people who are helping them run their campaigns and develop their proposals. Is the new administration likely to include fresh voices and ideas, reliable veterans or entrenched long-timers who haven't really learned from past mistakes?

Even so, candidates can only address the foreseeable challenges and make educated guesses about the imponderables. History tells us that it's all about taking chances.

For me, a key question is who's likely to be fighting old battles with worn-out tactics that underscore divisions, and who's more likely to appeal to common ground for solving common problems.

If we're going to look to Truman as an example - and he's a good one - then a Nov. 6, 1948, letter at the presidential library has a gem of plainspoken wisdom.

"I have no desire to crow over anybody or to see anybody eating crow, figuratively or otherwise," he wrote after beating Dewey (an erroneously premature Chicago Tribune headline notwithstanding). "We should all get together now and make a country in which everybody can eat turkey whenever he pleases."

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Linda P. Campbell is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Contact her via e-mail at lcampbell@star-telegram.com.

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