Analysis: Ghosts of Truman, LBJ haunt Bush

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst  |  May 25, 2004 at 1:01 PM
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WASHINGTON, May 25 (UPI) -- The U.S. economy is growing vigorously and job creation, while not nearly as strong as administration economic strategists predicted a couple of years ago, is on the upswing, too. Judged on macro-economic terms, the country is prosperous enough to guarantee re-election for a politically skilful president like George W. Bush.

Except for Iraq.

This is the conundrum facing the president. Can he be rendered unelectable, or lose even a closely fought re-election campaign if people are prosperous?

Indeed he can.

It has happened, in fact, twice before in the past half a century since the Untied States became the world's leading power. And in both cases, administrations with strong records of reform and generating unprecedented prosperity went down in flames because they had blundered into misconceived, unending wars that they could never rise beyond stalemate in dealing with.

The years were 1952 and 1968. The presidents in office were Harry S. Truman and Lyndon Baines Johnson, both of whom had previously won sweeping election victories with far more commanding majorities than Bush enjoyed in his hairsbreadth triumph over Al Gore in 2000.

Both Truman and Johnson were Democrats, in sharp contrast to the proudly conservative Republican Bush. But in many other respects, the parallels between them and him are startling.

Both Truman and Johnson, like Bush, presented themselves -- at first quite successfully -- as strong and steady national leaders of cool and strong nerve in times of foreign policy crisis and fear.

Truman triumphantly presided over the rapid end of World War II in both Europe and the Pacific and steadied the nation after the death of President Franklin Roosevelt. He then resolutely stood up to Soviet expansionism and threats in Europe and Northeast Asia.

Johnson steadied the nation after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and kept the Western alliance strong and stable. At first his determination to resist communist aggression in Southeast Asia was almost uniformly applauded across the political spectrum.

Indeed, both men enjoyed broad-spectrum consensus political support at the beginning of the Korean and Vietnam wars far greater than Bush's always highly controversial and fiercely debated determination to invade Iraq and topple its tyrannical leader, President Saddam Hussein.

Truman and Johnson, like Bush after the mega-terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the launching of the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, saw their popular support soar as the nation rallied behind them. In both cases their popular and patriotic support remained strong far longer and through far greater casualty levels than was the case for Bush over Iraq.

Yet by the end of their first full terms as presidents elected in their own right, both men were lame ducks, personally burned out, exhausted and politically discredited.

The differences with President Bush, however, are also important. The Korean and Vietnam wars had both been waged at high levels of casualties for years before the re-election political cycles started. U.S. casualties have been climbing alarmingly and look certain to soar further. But they are still far short of the tens of thousands of dead that Truman in 1952 and LBJ in 1968 had to answer for.

Like Bush, Truman and Johnson were at first determined to run for re-election. But unlike Bush, who coasted through the January to March primary season unopposed, both of them were derailed at the very beginning of it.

The New Hampshire primary burst on the national political scene in its modern form for the first time in 1952 when Democratic Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, who had made his name exposing the workings of organized crime, whipped Truman so decisively that the "Man from Missouri" had to make the best of things and publicly vowed to pull out of the race to avoid the humiliation of rejection. For all Truman's later revival as a cult heroic figure after his death, his approval ratings were at record lows when he left office, and most Democrats regarded him as a pariah over the next generation.

Johnson suffered a similar fate. A rebel senator from his own party humiliated him in New Hampshire as well: Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota. And although his domestic record of reform was one of the most comprehensive in U.S. history, unlike Truman, Johnson's reputation never recovered from the curse of the endless war and its scores of thousands of dead that he had blundered into but could never get out of.

Ironically, neither Truman nor Johnson went looking for their wars; their wars found them. Truman erred by letting Secretary of State Dean Acheson strongly signal to the communists in a controversial National Press Club appearance early in 1950 that the United States probably would not respond militarily to any communist invasion of South Korea. But when the invasion came in July 1950, both he and Acheson moved immediately to rush major U.S. forces there and push through a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing continued action.

Johnson was at first highly reluctant to commit major U.S. ground forces to South Vietnam but did so on a massive scale once he was convinced that the embattled U.S. ally and client would quickly fall to the communists if he did not.

By the time their re-election campaigns came around, however, both men found that despite their legislative and economic achievements at home, the wars started on their watches had come to overshadow and even cloud out everything else.

However, unlike President Bush, neither man ran for re-election. In both cases, the candidates from their own parties were embarrassed by their wars and were unable to bring together any credible national consensus of their own.

Adlai Stevenson lost big to the GOP's Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952, and Hubert Humphrey fell by a whisker in 1968 against Republican Richard Nixon. Up to now, polls suggest that whether Bush or presumptive Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts wins this November, the result will be another close-run one like '68 rather than '52.

But Iraq will certainly take center stage then, just as Korea did in '52 and Vietnam in '68. Barring either miracle or catastrophe, it is difficult to see any other outcome.


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