PRINT November 1992


Presidents' Precedents

THE PRESIDENT WHO WON the Cold War’s last campaign is falling over backward to identify himself with the president who won the Cold War’s first. Is this what was meant by the “end of history”? Or is it only trickle-up post-Modernism?

As the Republican convention opened, George Bush let it be known that he was reading David McCullough’s just-published bestseller Truman, a book so openly schlepped by operatives of both parties that it has since become the election’s I Ching. “Bush in a Truman Mode,” the New York Times reported on the eve of the president’s acceptance speech; Harry Truman was now the president’s “patron saint.” It seemed that “the normally chipper Mr. Bush has been blue, but not so much since he bonded with Harry Truman.”

The presidential séance was brokered by Representative Newt Gingrich, who passed Bush a copy of a memo Clark Clifford had given Truman in late ’47: “In times of crises the American citizen tends to back up his President.” Once Bush received McCullough’s tome, he read the first two chapters, then skipped to page 653 for the chapter on the 1948 election in which Truman confounded every pundit in America to defeat New York governor Thomas Dewey. Page 661: “He had just one strategy—attack, attack, attack.”

Of course Harry Truman, albeit the father of the national-security state and architect of the old “new world order,” was a Democrat. Did it matter that his 1948 State of the Union message called for national health insurance, a massive federal housing program, increased educational funding, greater subsidies for farmers, more conservation of natural resources, a near doubling of the minimum wage, and (in a presidential first) attention to civil rights? Was it relevant that in 1948 the economy was booming, the steel and automobile industries were enjoying banner years, and unemployment was below four percent? Not really. For Bush, Truman was a nearly empty signifier. All that mattered was that, dissed by his party and mocked in the media, he had beaten a “slick” and overwhelmingly favored challenger.

Bush concluded his acceptance speech by quoting Truman’s call “to win this new crusade and keep America safe and secure for its own people.” Two days later, the Times was churlish enough to point out that Truman had actually been quoting a speech by another Democratic president, Franklin Roosevelt, from 1932. But that only tightened the bond. George Bush has always shown an impressive morph potential when running for office. Had he paused on page 631, he would have found his patron saint musing, “A mocking bird imitates robins, jays, redbirds, crows, hawks—but has no individual note of his own. A lot of people like that.”

As the president tried to redefine himself, his opponent crowded the stage. Even before Bush’s speech, Bill Clinton’s ads were using the Truman epithet “do-nothing” to tar the Republican administration. “Both Candidates Claim Mantle of Truman,” the Times reported as the campaign officially got underway—Clinton kicking it off in Truman’s old hometown. Meanwhile, begging the key subtextual question of which pol was really the “true man,” their phantom opponent Ross Perot was in many respects the most “Trumanesque”—and not just because he looked most like the feisty little Missourian. Perot appropriated Truman’s message to “vote for yourself—you don’t have to vote for me.” Like the victor of 1948, he was also adroit at going two ways at once.

Truman was the kind of president who could institute government loyalty programs while decrying McCarthyite anticommunism as Republican hysteria, who could call himself a “real liberal” while opposing himself to “crackpot professional liberals.” Like Perot, he had a sense of the medicine show and a knack for homespun self-promotion. Time accused him of making his campaign a “vaudeville act” when he distributed three million copies of his biography in the form of a comic book. Preparing for his 1952 campaign, later aborted, Truman concocted a classier version of this bio—a self-glorifying picture book called Mr. President.

Back in 1948, Truman found his own version of Truman. Some 18 months before the election, Frank Capra had acquired the rights to Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse’s State of the Union, a 1945 political satire that had run 765 performances on Broadway and won a Pulitzer Prize. Inspired by the life of Wendell Willkie, whom Roosevelt had beaten to the White House in the 1940 race, State of the Union tells the story of a philandering businessman who reconciles with his estranged wife while running for president as a moderate-to-liberal Republican. Soon after Capra took on the property, the House Un-American Activities Committee arrived in Hollywood to investigate communist “infiltration” of the movie industry. The film was in production—and frequent revision—as HUAC held its hearings. Indeed, two players in that real-life drama acted as antagonists in the movie: “friendly” witness and informant Adolphe Menjou played a sinister political operative, while the “gray-listed” liberal Katharine Hepburn appeared as candidate Spencer Tracy’s outspoken wife.

That Capra feared to attract HUAC’s attention may account for State of the Union’s timidity. Yet this lugubrious, at times hectoring comedy achieved a now-petrified topicality, using real names (Taft, Eisenhower, Truman) and trying to address real issues. Tracy comes out for world government (“with or without Russia”), and Capra pushes the Marshall Plan (envisioned as American kids sending surplus bubble gum to their European pen pals). Like Capra’s earlier Mr. Smith, Tracy wants to fight the pros, but he’s thwarted by back-room deals struck with assorted sleazebags, as well as by the machinations of the right-wing newspaper publisher who is his mistress. The film climaxes with a prime-time radio address in which he hijacks his own campaign (“I’m paying for thisbroadcast”) to stage a triumphant tactical retreat: “I withdraw as a candidate for any office—not because I’m honest, but because I’m dishonest. I want to apologize to all the good, sincere people who put their faith in me.”

In early April of 1948, M-G-M previewed State of the Union in Washington for President Truman and 1,600 guests. According to Charles Alldredge, a Truman advance man who later described the event in Variety, the president levitated in his seat at the spectacle of a candidate who “finally won out over himself and the bosses by appealing frankly to the people.” Though the movie “may not have given the President any new ideas,” Alldredge believed that it “confirmed [his] determination not to quit.” The next morning the White House requested a print of the film for use on the presidential yacht, and later asked to screen it again at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

State of the Union “is a scream,” Truman would write his sister. “It gives the Republicans hell and, believe it or not, is favorable to your brother.” Not everyone agreed. The movie was blandly received, eventually grossing $3.5 million to finish an undistinguished 14th on Variety’s list of the year’s box-office attractions. Still, thanks to Alldredge’s revelation that State of the Union was perhaps “the most important film of 1948,” Variety headlined his story “Film That Changed History?”

Some eight presidential elections later, State of the Union once again intervened in history when candidate Ronald Reagan used Spencer Tracy’s protest—slightly modified to “I’m paying for this microphone!”—to prevent a supporter of rival George Bush from cutting him off in a televised debate. So decisive was Reagan’s grasp of Hollywood logic, political commentator Sidney Blumenthal felt, that with this single one-liner he “seized the moment and the nomination from Bush.” Of course, Reagan had been a prominent Truman supporter back in 1948. Bush, though, had cast his ballot—in the first election he voted in—for Dewey.

J. Hoberman contributes this column regularly to Artforum and writes film criticism for The Village Voice, New York. Vulgar Modernism, a collection of his essays from the ’80s, was published recently by Temple University Press, Philadelphia.