• Marc Johnson

Prophets Without Honor


I have always thought it was a statement of the character, decency and political astuteness of Harry Truman that he developed a genuine working friendship with the former president that Democrats still love to vilify – Herbert Hoover.

The photo is of Truman and Hoover chatting it up in the Oval Office about the time President Truman tapped the former president to head what became known as the Hoover Commission; a vast effort in the late 1940’s to reorganize the Executive Branch of the federal government. When Truman asked Hoover, a man still regarded by many as the do nothing administrator who timidly looked on as the Great Depression ravished the economy in the early 1930’s, to head the commission many regarded it as a very strange choice. It was unusual and also brilliant.

Truman also called upon Hoover at the end of World War II for his advice about food relief for a Europe devastated by war. Hoover had made his reputation as a skilled manager of the massive effort to provide emergency food assistance at the end of World War I.

Both men were sharp tongued partisans. Both suffered by comparison to Franklin Roosevelt. Each had something to prove. They became close friends. By the time Truman left office in 1953, the Executive Branch of the federal government has come to look pretty much as it looks today. Truman, with Hoover’s help, had created the modern Department of Defense, the Joint Chief of Staff, the Central Intelligence Agency and the White House Council of Economic Advisers. Truman needed Republican help to get those jobs done and he was smart enough to seek the help – and political cover – the former Republican president could offer.

This little bit of political trivia begs a question: why don’t we use the talents of “former” political leaders more often? In every other human endeavor, experience – having been there and done that – is considered among the most necessary and desirable characteristics. In politics and public policy, once out of office the “former” typically becomes a relic, a footnote of history. It shouldn’t be so.

Think about some of the national politic figures of the recent past whose experience and judgment would be valuable in some capacity today. Bob Kerrey, the former Nebraska governor and senator, served as a college president. Former Oklahoma governor and senator David Boren runs the University of Oklahoma. He’s has a master’s degree from Oxford and was a Rhodes Scholar. Do you think they might have something to add to the national debate about educational improvement?

President Obama did press former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson into service to co-chair a deficit commission and then promptly ignored his recommendations. Simpson ought to be in the Cabinet, regardless who sits in the Oval Office. His recent salty opinions about Obama’s “abrogation of leadership” on the deficit make it certain he won’t be asked for more advice by the current White House resident, but I seriously doubt whether any Republican would call on the lanky guy from Cody, either. He’s too blunt, too outspoken, which is just one of the characteristics that would make him so valuable to any president.

I have never been a great fan of former California governor, senator and San Diego mayor Pete Wilson, but his resume alone should get him on any list of “formers” who could help with something somewhere.

The list could go on and on: former governor like Jim Thompson, Mike Sullivan, Marc Racicot, Mike Dukakis and Tom Kean and former senators like Evan Bayh, Bob Graham, Bill Bradley (perhaps he should be NBA Commissioner), Elizabeth Dole and Gordon Smith would all have something to add as formal or informal advisers to any president of Cabinet secretary.

All of these folks have other lives, of course, in law, lobbying, running policy centers. etc. and some have done the occasional stint on this or that blue ribbon commission. Most would gladly answer the call again, particularly if their work and advice were really taken seriously by current elected officials. Ignoring such talent, expertise and experience is a little like being a high school football coach with a retired Vince Lombardi living down the block and not being smart enough to invite him to practice.

I’ve always thought one of the real and enjoyable powers of being president would be the ability to issue an invitation to anyone, literally anyone in the world, to come to the White House for dinner and a talk. If I had that power for just one day, I’d invite the cast of former political characters I’ve mentioned just to hear their take on the issues of the day, which is pretty much what Truman did with Hoover back in 1945.

As historian Donald McCoy wrote in 1990 in the newsletter of the Truman Presidential Library, the two old, experienced, partisan, but very decent public servants forged a lasting bond.

“During the winter of 1962-1963, two old gentlemen exchanged deeply moving letters,” McCoy wrote. “Herbert Hoover wrote Harry Truman that ‘yours has been a friendship which has reached deeper into my life than you know … When the attack on Pearl Harbor came, I at once supported the President and offered to serve in any useful capacity … However, there was no response … When you came to the White House within a month you opened the door to me to the only profession I knew, public service, and you undid some disgraceful action that had been taken in the prior years. For all this and your friendship, I am deeply grateful.’ Truman replied, ‘You’ll never know how much I appreciated your letter … In fact I was overcome, because you state the situation much better than I could. I’ll quote you, ‘For all this and your friendship, I am deeply grateful.'”

It takes a particular type of political courage – perhaps character is a better word – to ask another politician for advice, particularly advice across the partisan boundary, but a little more of that type of courage would make our politics a whole lot more productive.

For that we would all be deeply grateful.

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©2021 by Marc C Johnson