News Column

Key US Senate Race Recalls Harry Truman

Oct. 9, 2012

Nicholas J.C. Pistor


With his candidacy for the U.S. Senate in question, conservative Republican Todd Akin stood before reporters last month and summoned the memory of Missouri's Democratic lion.

"In 1940, Harry Truman was pitched overboard by the Democrat Party in St. Louis and Kansas City, but he decided that he was going to challenge those particular leaders and let the public decide in the state of Missouri," Akin said. "The rest is history. We're going to do it again."

Truman's name is the one constant in Missouri's fast-changing U.S. Senate race. Both candidates -- Akin and U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill -- have been underdogs at various points. And both candidates, once left for dead, have turned to Truman's memory for inspiration.

Truman, once viewed through a decidedly Democratic Party lens, is now a bipartisan icon, a modern-day folk hero of the underdog campaign.

"I would invoke Harry Truman's memory, too," said David McCullough, a historian who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for his book on Truman's life. "If you are behind, he's a marvelous example of how to stay in the fight."

"He often said that he never forgot 'who I was, where I came from, or where I'd go back to,'" McCullough noted.

Akin has persisted in Missouri's U.S. Senate race despite Republican calls for him to quit after the candidate made a controversial comment about rape. His money has dried up, his poll numbers have plummeted, and most of his mainstream support has vanished.

Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker of the House, spoke in St. Louis last month and said Akin's uphill battle "really reminds me of Harry Truman in 1940 running for the Senate."

Truman was lifted to the U.S. Senate in 1934 by the powerful Tom Pendergast political machine in Kansas City. By the time Truman sought re-election in 1940, the machine had been toppled by Gov. Lloyd C. Stark, a Democrat who had a falling out with Pendergast. Stark ran against Truman in the primary and initially captured support from much of the Democratic apparatus.

"Truman took one car and one driver and crisscrossed the state of Missouri and said, 'You have a choice,'" Gingrich said.

Truman ended up getting support from the Democratic machines in Kansas City and St. Louis. The Post-Dispatch reported a "zero-hour" swing by ward leaders to Truman, which helped carry his victory over Stark by a few thousand votes.

Gingrich and Akin's invocation of Truman outraged Claire McCaskill, who said on Twitter: "Today in St Louis Newt said Todd reminded him of Harry Truman!?! I believe Harry would have a few choice words for Newt Gingrich."

McCaskill, who says she has read every book published about the only Missourian to be president, has long referenced Truman as her political idol.

In the Senate, McCaskill helped establish a bipartisan commission on wasteful military spending modeled after the "Truman Committee," which then-Sen. Truman established to ferret out war profiteering by contractors.

In early August, when her campaign was trailing badly in the polls largely because of her support of President Barack Obama's health care law, McCaskill told a group of Jefferson County voters that she "will not lose" and then referenced Truman.

"He wasn't afraid to make decisions that weren't popular," McCaskill said in Jefferson County. "And he said things very plainly and simply. And he was courageous. And you know what he would say about the Tea Party? Well I would not say it out loud, but it would involve some curse words. He would call them out for not being the kind of person we need in the country to help people. They want to shut off the lights and go home."

Amy Williams, deputy director of the Harry Truman Presidential Library and Museum in Independence, Mo., said Truman's legacy has steadily grown since he left public office because of his 'shoot straight" personality. He is known for making popular several Missouri sayings, such as "the buck stops here" and "if you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen."

In 1948, Democratic Party bosses sought to replace Truman, then the incumbent president, on the ballot with a variety of other "better" candidates, including Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. Truman defied them, giving a passionate convention speech and adopting a go-it-alone persona that defined his legacy. He went on to defeat Republican Thomas Dewey in the general election, even though everyone had counted him out.

"Republicans often say that Harry Truman would be horrified by the current Democratic Party," Williams said. "And Democrats often say Truman would be horrified by modern-day Republicans."

Distributed by MCT Information Services

Source: (c) 2012 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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