Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Something Old, Something New

For first visitors, some background:

This website picks up where Leon’s Op-Ed left off when Mac closed down its website services a couple of years ago. The previous website was established soon after September 11, 2001 with the operational input of a computer expert, nephew Fred Taub of Seattle, who contributed all the technical know-how to keep it going. There were numerous postings over the years, and many of the commentaries written after 9/11 and during the first years of the second Iraq War were compiled in a book published in 2003.

This reincarnated website provides the tools with which even an amateur can run the whole thing, and that’s what I’m now doing.  As before, my themes will vary: current events, books, music, movies and some personal reflections on a long life — probably in that order. If I don’t change my mind, topics on the near horizon are drones, my reaction to Ian McEwan’s latest book, Sweet Tooth, and a beautiful movie, The Sessions.

For now, it’s two short items: about a statue on Treasure Island, San Francisco, and an email exchange of opinions about Harry Truman.

On Treasure Island, there is a huge and marvelous statue of a dancing woman. It’s called “Bliss”. It has been there since 2010, but we saw it for the first time recently and were bowled over by its beauty, size, spirit and imaginative design. We went over to the hangar where it was created and where different artists are working on very large sculptures of various kinds. Our luck was to find the creator of  “Bliss”, Marco Cochrane, in his work place. He’s a great person. He told us all about his work and his model for “Bliss.”  He told us of the life experiences that shaped his strong social conscience and his perception of women. He celebrates women’s capacity to overcome against age-old constraints and, for very many, personal encounters with extreme brutality. If you haven’t been to Treasure Island, the view of San Francisco and the Bay is one of a kind. And “Bliss is not to be missed.

* * * * *

Here’s a comment a friend emailed to me about Harry Truman and my comment in response:

Dear Leon,

I’ve been reading David McCullough’s biography of Truman and now have new respect for Truman.
Here’s a portion that really interested me.  It is just after the end of the war.  Speaking of Truman it says:  “His troubles had begun with his first postwar message to Congress, only days after the Japanese surrender ceremonies.  Sent to the Hill on Sept. 6, the message was 16,000 words in length and presented a 21-point domestic program that included increased unemployment compensation, an immediate increase in the minimum wage, a permanent Fair Employment Practices Committee, tax reform, crop insurance for farmers, a full year’s extension of the War Powers and Stabilization Act, meaning the government would keep control over business and federal aid to housing to make possible a million new homes a year.”  And Truman added “We must go on.  We must widen our horizon further.  We must consider the redevelopment of large areas of the blighted and slum sections of our cities so that in the truly American way they may be remade to accommodate families not only of low-income groups as heretofore, but every income group.”

A couple of pages further, there is this:  “For those Republicans and conservative Democrats who had been happily claiming that the New Deal was as good as dead, that the “Roosevelt nonsense” was over at last, because they “knew” Harry Truman, it was a rude awakening.  Not even FDR had ever asked for so much  “at one sitting,” complained House Minority Leader Joe Martin, and many of Truman’s own party in Congress were equally distressed, equally disinclined to go along with him.  The same conservative coalition of Republicans and southern Democrats that had stymied Roosevelt since 1937 stood ready now to block his successor.  The House Ways and Means Committee, with 14 Democrats and 10 Republicans, voted to reject the unemployment compensation proposal, and shelved any further consideration of aid to the jobless.”

Sound familiar?

J. R.

Dear J.R.

I've just read what I wrote in the paragraphs below in answer to your comments on Truman. I fear I'm in my new blogging mode, thinking a little more of some abstract general audience rather than carrying on a conversation with you. Writing op-eds is something I like to do, but a face-to-face talk would be a lot more comfortable.

Relying on my memory (not very good, especially when pushed back some 65 years), I think there is a strong parallel between Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson. Both took on the presidency suddenly and unexpectedly. Both were conservative Democrats and both surprised everyone by championing significant domestic policies in the New Deal tradition. Although both were Southerners and neither had previously been considered unfriendly to the racist Dixiecrats, both were associated with important reforms that seriously challenged Jim Crow, and it was Truman who banned official segregation of the US military. Truman's embrace of liberal domestic policies became particularly pronounced in the 1948 election campaign in response to Henry Wallace's challenge from the left. 

Lyndon Johnson's presidency ended in dismal failure because his administration became defined by its stubborn commitment to the Vietnam War, its "anti-communist" rationale and false domino theory. However, Truman's reputation as a successful president has actually been embellished over time, even though he did things in the name of "anti-Communism" that should never be forgotten or, in my opinion, forgiven. We can't know what was uppermost in his mind when he ordered the atomic cremation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. How much weight was given to preventing the potential loss of American lives (in exchange for masses of destroyed Japanese civilian lives)? How much was political, acting before the Soviets could join in an invasion of Japan and stake a claim to a significant role in post-war arrangements? Whatever... to justify the use of the atomic bomb back then would be to suggest that there may be circumstances that justify the use of nuclear weapons in the future.
With the beginning of the Cold War, which both sides fueled, Truman's Administration ushered in the National Security Act of 1947 and the Attorney General's list of "subversive" organizations. This was the beginning of the far-flung "red scare" that did so much damage to civil liberties and reached its peak in McCarthyism. 1947 was also the year of enactment of the Taft-Hartley Act, which set the foundation for the union-busting crusade that reaches new extremes to this day. Truman opposed Taft-Hartley and it passed over his veto, but he used it twelve times as President.

As you see, I can't cheer for Truman. But life is complicated. Somehow we're compelled to get our heads around the fact that some presidents, political leaders and even movements may do some good things and some horrible things as well. 




  1. Dear Leon,

    I was happy to read your two recent Blog entries... Both of the provided me with a great deal of history that I had never know about. Especially about the nature of the presidency. It's good to have you back writing on your Blog!


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