The Original National-Security Democrat
One reason Barack Obama chose Joe Biden as his running mate in 2008 was Biden’s standing in the public mind as a serious, centrist Democrat, liberal on domestic issues but a reliable hand when it came to protecting America’s interests abroad. Until recently, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton enjoyed a similar reputation. But the administration’s bungling in the Middle East and its seeming insistence on alienating traditional allies has revived for many a longing for the grand tradition of the national-security Democrat: John F. Kennedy, Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Joe Lieberman.
The original model for this disappearing brand of Democrat was Harry S. Truman, the soft-spoken Midwesterner and accidental president—he assumed office in 1945 after the death of Franklin Roosevelt—who endeared himself to the nation by admitting he felt “like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.” In the age of the permanent campaign and the multi-million-dollar ad buy, such political modesty has few remaining reference points. Truman was not just a Democrat from another era, but one from an era rapidly fading from living memory, when a man without a college degree could ascend to the nation’s highest office.
As a child in Independence, Missouri, Truman learned thrift, self-sufficiency, and humility—traits no longer considered congruent with the American personality. His membership in social clubs and service organizations, common for young men of his time but rare in today’s socially networked world, made him a well-known and trusted member of his community. He refused to let failures as a farmer and, later, a Kansas City haberdasher, derail his ambition, which soon was fueling an upwardly mobile political career—first as a county judge and then as Missouri’s junior senator, vice president, and, ultimately, as the 33rd president of the United States.