Apr 15 2010

Parallels Between Presidents Truman and Bush Provide Insights Into the Future

Today Mark McKinnon, a former media advisor to both President George W. Bush and Senator John McCain, highlighted a few compelling parallels between the personal characters and presidential challenges of Presidents Harry Truman and Bush (Daily Beast, 4/14/10).

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Why are Truman and Bush so similar? Is it our imagination or something deeper?
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McKinnon echoes themes that Contributing Editor Ann Hovey and I independently sketched almost 2 years ago in connection with the fact that the presidencies of Truman and Bush are separated by one long wave (about 56 years); see McCain and the Republican Panic.

Over the last 200 years, long waves in the economy appear to fundamentally trigger spectacular Maslow Windows; i.e., rhythmic, twice-per-century golden ages (e.g., the Camelot-style 1960s) when great explorations (e.g., Lewis and Clark), macro-engineering projects (e.g., the Apollo Moon program), and sadly, major wars (e.g., World War I) cluster together exclusively.

So it’s reasonable to expect that a wide variety of political, economic, cultural, and even military trends, events, and personalities might display key parallels from similar times during one long wave to another.

While McKinnon appears to be interested in “Bush’s resurrection,” our focus is on using Truman and Bush as another interesting historical test of this long wave model.

For example, in June, 2008 we wrote:

Truman’s and “Dubya” Bush’s first terms tantalizingly are 56 years apart (1945 and 2001), which suggests the economic, political, and military framework of each administration should have had similarities, although Bush did not have an analog for W.W. II. In fact, each president governed during times of unpopular conflicts – Truman in Korea, and Bush in Iraq. The Truman years saw the birth of the Cold War. Today, Russian President Putin is seen by some as launching the same cold war tensions. After WWII, the Truman era featured a wave of anti-communism and international tensions. Bush’s administration, in response to international terrorist attacks, introduced the Patriot Act. Thus both presidents governed in an environment of controversy where national security and civil liberties seemed to compete.

In terms of their public persona, both Truman and Bush were/are perceived by many as being “rough around the edges,” and as somewhat unenlightened. Their public approval ratings plummeted during their terms of office with record lows (20s – 30s), although both presidents presided over significant economic gowth.

McKinnon sees similar parallels:

They both gave hell and got hell.
As presidents, George W. Bush and Harry S. Truman had a lot in common.
Both were skeptical of elites and the media, driven by their faith, had troubled presidencies, made momentous and difficult decisions, took the nation into war, were unpopular in their time and weren’t concerned about it. They deeply believed if they did the right thing, history would sort things out in the end.

But consider the following observations about Truman from noted historians and how they easily they could be applied to Bush (all citations are from David McCullough’s Truman, except where otherwise noted):
He presented himself as a common-sense country boy…
…reputation of an intellectual lightweight…
Truman was often called a simple man, which he was not.
He made no pretense at being superior in any regard. He did not seem to need the limelight, flattery, or a following …

His whole life Truman had been moved primarily by faith… “I have a deep and abiding faith in the destiny of free men.”
In just three months in office, Harry Truman had been faced with a greater surge of history, with larger, more difficult, more far-reaching decisions than any president before him.
…unparalleled power and responsibility had been thrust upon him at one of history’s greatest turning points…
[On the Korean War] The war Truman had never wanted or expected, but knew to be of utmost importance to the future of the world—the most important decision of his presidency, he believed—had come to overshadow his whole second term.
The decision to go into Korea, he said, was the most important of his time in office… His intent in Korea, he now said, was to prevent World War III …

[Mid-term elections] The opposing party swept the election, carrying both houses of Congress for the first time since before the Depression…
“The shrill pitch of abuse heaped upon the president continues to echo,” wrote Time.

Finally, regarding America’s role in the world, Truman and Bush sound eerily similar.
President Truman in 1948:
“The only expansion we are interested in is the expansion of human freedom and the wider enjoyment of the good things of the earth in all countries… The only prize we covet is the respect and good will of our fellow members of the family of nations.”
President Bush in 2002:
“Our nation’s cause has always been larger than our nation’s defense. We fight, as we always fight, for a just peace—a peace that favors human liberty. We will defend the peace against threats from terrorists and tyrants. We will preserve the peace by building good relations among the great powers. And we will extend the peace by encouraging free and open societies on every continent. Building this just peace is America’s opportunity, and America’s duty …

Truman and Bush. The similarities are striking … With his ability to “take it,” his inner iron, his bedrock faith in the democratic process, his trust in the American people, and his belief that history was the final, all-important judge of performance, he was truly exceptional. He never had a doubt about who he was, and that too was part of his strength…

Noted historian Doug Brinkley perhaps best sums up the pair: Both Truman and Bush were avatars of direct action. Neither cared much about public opinion polls or pulse-reading. At their best, they were decisive mavericks. At their worst, too-fast-of-draws.

A coincidence? Within the context of many such parallels over the last 200 years, probably not. The long wave creates a framework that enables certain types of events and personalities to ascend at favored times. However, we should keep in mind that due, for example, to advances in technology and its ripples through the global economy, history appears to be more a spiral than a cycle.

Parallels between Truman, Bush, and their times, provide insights into how it all works. And, in combination with a wealth of macroeconomic evidence and historical trends over the last 200 years, they support our forecast that the next golden age of prosperity, exploration, and technology should arrive by 2015.

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