Truman had inherited the mantle of the great Franklin D. Roosevelt and tended to be viewed as the wearer of a hand-me-down crown several sizes too big. The man who had put him on the Democratic ticket in 1944 was a president of surpassing eloquence, polished style and aristocratic grace, but Harry Truman enjoyed none of these gifts. With a voice like a rural auctioneer and suits that looked like they came from the defunct haberdashery he had once run, the man from Missouri seemed destined only to serve out the balance of the term of Roosevelt, whose death on April 12, 1945, had catapulted Truman into the White House.
Bush, like Truman, stands in the shadow of the man who put him in the nation's second-highest office. Like Truman, his presentation often seems
uncertain and uninspiring.
But like Truman, Bush is a man who tends to be underrated in terms of his fortitude and his ability to shrug off gloomy predictions. Moreover, Bush has the kind of combative quality that enabled Truman to keep hammering away at a rival who seemed determined to stand above the unpleasantness and negativity of a presidential campaign.
Is Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis another Dewey, and is he pursuing a course that has ominous parallels to Dewey's aloof high-road campaign of 1948? There are some remarkable parallels between the two candidates of the party out of power.
Both Dewey and Dukakis enjoyed the image of being well-scrubbed reformers. Dewey had been a racket-busting district attorney before coming to the governorship of New York. A reserved man - some said cold and unfeeling - Dewey pursued a classic front-runner's strategy. He mouthed platitudes and refused to be nailed down to specifics.
His elusiveness stemmed from two sources. The first was his desire to avoid positions that would open old wounds in the Republican Party, particularly between the Eastern internationalist wing he represented and the Midwestern isolationist faction led by Sen. Robert A. Taft of Ohio. The second was a commendable aversion to pledging himself to commitments that would make it difficult for him to govern once he became President. It is a strategy that Dukakis seems to be pursuing for basically the same reasons.
The strategic challenge facing Bush in 1988 is one that Truman could appreciate. Bush needs to maintain the winning coalition assembled by Reagan in 1980 and strengthened in 1984. Truman needed the New Dealers who had been mobilized by Roosevelt but he also faced the challenge from his party's left wing, led by former Vice President Henry A. Wallace, and a bolt on the right
from Southern conservatives, led by South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond.
Truman's approach was to position himself slightly to the left politically where he thought most voters were located in 1948. Bush's strategy appears to be to position himself slightly to the right in 1988 based on the same kind of calculation about the contemporary electorate.
But if the defections that beset the Democrats in 1948 are more serious than the faint rumblings of discontent this year among Republican conservatives, Truman enjoyed one advantage that Bush does not possess. As President, he could use his incumbent powers, including the extraordinary stroke of calling the Republican-controlled Congress into special session to present them with a list of items he wanted passed but at which they would surely balk. He could then assail them with devastating effect as a "do- nothing Congress."
Dukakis has an even less enviable challenge than that facing Dewey: Convince a prosperous country at peace that change is warranted. Dewey overestimated the public's desire for novelty and its disenchantment with the Democrats. His conservative tactic of muting specifics led administration mouthpiece Harold Ickes to label him "elusive Dewey, the candidate in sneakers."
It may well be that Bush will prove less appealing a campaigner than Truman, and that Dukakis will spurn the loftiness of Dewey. But, if on election night, the early edition of the newspaper comes out with the premature headline "Dukakis Beats Bush," hold onto it. It could become a valuable collector's item.