On the survival of the presidency and the rest of us1/9/2017
If the Electoral College follows form, a person whom millions consider to be a buffoon and egomaniac or worse will be inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States. While the characterizations will upset some as at least disrespectful, it is rightly aimed at the man entering the presidency and not at the office of the President.
For as Harry Truman, the 33rd president, tried to make clear, there is a distinction between the Office of the President and the person temporarily filling that office. That was evident when “Give ’em Hell Harry” after leaving office was offered corporate positions and board memberships at high salaries.
Truman turned down such offers saying, “You don’t want me. You want the office of the President, and that doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to the American people and it’s not for sale” (an approach not taken by some of Truman’s successors).
The distinction between the person in the office and the office itself was clear to Truman and to thousands of citizens who wrote to him; the distinction, however, sometimes seems lost on the press and lots of others. The fact is respect for the office may well call for harsh criticism of the incumbent.
The difference between the man and the office didn’t occur to me until I spent days in the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, reading thousands of letters to Truman on one controversy or another that resulted when he expressed himself as Harry Truman and not President Truman.
The best-known example: Truman sent a nasty note to Paul Hume, a Washington Post music critic, who had panned a recital by soprano Margaret Truman. Some letter writers sympathized, noting “Just because you’re President doesn’t mean you can’t defend your daughter as a father should.” Others were not as sympathetic. They might begin a letter with “Now hear this, you red-tinged fugitive from a bargain counter” — a reference to Truman’s work in a men’s clothing store — and they would offer thanks that the Presidency would survive Truman. (The writer offering the “red-tinged fugitive” insult, by the way, lived in Pleasantville, New Jersey.)
So the office of the President will survive; how about the rest of us?
In the wake of many elections we console ourselves with the notion “I’ll survive” or well-meaning friends advise, “We’ll survive.”
But there are at least two things troubling about being considered such a survivor.
One is that elections are not about mere survival. Elections are about making our communities, states and nation better and more caring places. Those once called “public servants” are supposed to shape public policy to address our needs and hopes and not merely to survive until the next round of expensive, divisive campaigns.
The other is that the “We’ll survive” approach often is voiced by those well insulated from the damage done or needs ignored by newly elected state and federal legislatures. These “survivors” are insulated against adversity or harm by dint of their income, housing, race and other fortunate circumstance.
Many Iowa families in fact do not survive election after election of “public servants” who refuse to address the woeful nature of mental health care and facilities in the state. Many families suffer because “public servants” have knee-jerk, ill-informed opposition to the benefits of medical marijuana. And just about everyone suffers because “public servants” adamantly refuse to work together for the public good.
So for the short term, please drop the “survivor” argument to election outcomes and don’t be outraged by criticism that is aimed at the person and not the office held. For the longer term, recognize and value elected officials who truly serve the public.
And don’t think of a uni-dimensional Harry Truman as a “Give ’em Hell” kind of guy. Consider this assessment by HST biographer Alonzo Hamby: “… on important matters, Harry Truman was neither impulsive nor prone to act in spasms of anger. In one crisis after another, he moved with caution and deliberation, invariably seeking a wide range of informed advice and attempting to construct as broad a consensus as possible.”
We should be so lucky today at the state and federal levels. ♦