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What Sen. Harry Truman could teach today’s Capitol Hill Republicans

Doing the right thing in a crisis is sometimes the shrewdest political move

As a Missouri senator, Harry Truman launched his special committee to investigate wartime corporate profiteering, even with a president of his own party in the White House, Shapiro writes.
As a Missouri senator, Harry Truman launched his special committee to investigate wartime corporate profiteering, even with a president of his own party in the White House, Shapiro writes. (Courtesey the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum)

In early 1941, as America launched a massive military buildup in preparation for World War II, a backbench Missouri senator named Harry Truman became shocked by the corporate profiteering in the building of military bases.

Beginning his investigations at Fort Leonard Wood in his home state, Truman drove an estimated 10,000 miles across the country to document the waste, the incompetence and the bill padding that came with cost-plus contracts. As Truman explained, “Huge fixed fees were offered by the government in much the same way as Santa Claus passes out gifts at a church Christmas party.”

Truman’s solution was to successfully propose a special Senate investigative committee. The Truman committee sparked predictable alarm at the White House and the War Department.

As David McCullough writes in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Truman biography, “A single nettlesome senator could mean unending problems and bad publicity. … Constant congressional probing could well delay or deter the whole program.”

The president was Franklin D. Roosevelt, at the height of his powers after being inaugurated for an unprecedented third term. But Truman, a fellow Democrat, was undeterred, believing that patriotism in a wartime era mattered more than party loyalty.

Incompetence galore

Like so many other Truman values (for example, the-buck-stops-here sense of presidential responsibility), this old-fashioned concept of fidelity to the entire country seems quaint in the era of Donald Trump.

The president revels in wartime imagery, calling the pandemic “worse than Pearl Harbor” and describing citizens who risk their lives to shop as “warriors.”

But the wartime response of Trump and his hollowed-out administration is reminiscent of the battlefield incompetence of the 10th-century English king known as Ethelred the Unready.

At least in the days of the cost-plus contracts that enraged Truman, the World War II military bases were actually built.

In late January, the Trump administration fumbled an offer from Prestige Ameritech — the last major domestic manufacturer of N95 masks — to produce an additional 1.7 million masks per day. By early March, desperate hospital workers were forced to improvise their own facial protection or use a single mask for days on end.

Enter presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, the walking embodiment of the Peter principle: “Every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.”

Placed in charge of a governmental effort to bring private sector expertise to the hunt for medical supplies, Kushner brought his customary flair for failure to the enterprise. As The New York Times reported, “Federal officials who had spent years devising emergency plans were layered over by Kushner allies.”

Kushner’s inexperienced team of youthful Wall Street friends failed to produce almost anything of substance. OK, there was the $69 million emergency contract (paid by New York state) to an upstart firm that failed to produce a single ventilator.

The moral, said Tim Manning, a former top FEMA administrator: “There’s an old saying in emergency management — disaster is the wrong time to exchange business cards.”

The list of Trump miscues in the face of COVID-19 is so long that it could almost stretch to Wuhan, China.

Trump spent March hawking the easy availability of virtually nonexistent tests for the virus. The president ballyhooed unproven drugs as a cure for COVID-19. The Seattle Times reported that a clinical trial at the University of Washington of these Trump-backed remedies has been struggling to attract volunteers because of heart problems associated with the drugs.

Please understand that there is a big difference between partisan politics and administrative incompetence.

In a city, politics would probably dictate the size of the fire department, its budget and the contract levels for firefighters. But if a fire truck races out and gets lost trying to find the address or if the firefighters hose down the wrong house, that’s incompetence.

No giving him hell

What is tragic, as COVID-19 deaths hit 80,000, is the almost total silence from congressional Republicans over the ineptitude of the administration in fighting the virus.

Remember, we are not talking about judicial appointments, Michael Flynn or the size of the next economic rescue package. At stake is a simple question of whether the Trump administration can help reduce the deaths and suffering from the worst pandemic in more than a century.

So where, oh where, is the 2020 Republican equivalent of Harry Truman?

Yes, of course, the virus has until very recently curtailed normal congressional sessions. But is there a glimmer of evidence (from interviews or press releases) that Capitol Hill Republicans are willing to challenge the way that Trump has mishandled the worst crisis since World War II?

What are they afraid of? Are Trump tweets really more fearsome than the virus?

With Trump trailing Joe Biden in almost all polls, with the odds of the Republicans holding the Senate no better than 50-50 and with the Democratic House majority virtually unassailable, it is hard to attribute collective GOP cowardice to political survival.

Instead, effective congressional oversight of the government’s COVID-19 response seems like a fantasy. Trump is stonewalling House committees by refusing to allow officials like Anthony Fauci to testify. And, under Mitch McConnell, the Senate appears more interested in rubber-stamping unqualified conservative judges than in battling the pandemic.

But as Truman’s career illustrates, doing the right thing in a crisis is sometimes the shrewdest political move. By 1943, as Businessweek wrote, “Often a threat to ‘take everything to the Truman Committee’ is sufficient to force a cure of abuses.”

A year later, as Roosevelt deftly manipulated the strings, the delegates to the Democratic Convention in Chicago named Truman as FDR’s 1944 running mate. None of this would have happened without the Truman committee.

Walter Shapiro has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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