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Harris Sherline: Character Counts

Politicians today could learn something from Truman's grit, honesty and strength.

What is there about holding public office that seems to turn ordinarily sensible people into pigs feeding at the public trough? Is it just because of the access that money provides to those who are in a position to influence decisions that benefit or harm others? Is it the natural tendency that appears to be present in almost everyone to take advantage of their position? Is it just the fact that so much money flows in and around the political environment that it’s bound to influence politicians to want some or a lot of it for themselves.

Harris Sherline
Harris Sherline
No doubt there are many reasons. But, if you start with weakness of character, add opportunity and the ready availability of large amounts of money, all operating in an environment that makes it easy for those who are looking for personal gain, it’s not hard to see how it happens.

What does this tell us? That we are surrounded by dishonesty in our culture? That it’s just human nature?

Perhaps. But, the problem goes much deeper. It comes down to character, and there doesn’t seem to be much of that around among most of today’s politicians. There are always exceptions, of course, but it seems that we don’t see many politicians these days who willingly subordinate their desire for wealth and power to serve those they are elected to represent.

One of the most notable examples of a political leader who didn’t take advantage of his position is Harry Truman, who retired after he left office, returned to his home in Missouri and lived out his days in the same house he and his wife occupied before they went to Washington. He had no savings but wouldn’t accept any special privileges. His only source of income was a small military pension of $112.56 per month. (Former presidents didn’t receive retirement benefits at that time.)

Truman refused all offers of high-paying corporate positions, consulting fees or commercial endorsements, which he felt would diminish the integrity of the office of president. Can you imagine any retired politician doing that today?

Truman was confronted with some of the most difficult choices ever made by any leader. One such decision involved the use the A-bomb against Japan, dropping it on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. At the time he took office after Franklin Roosevelt’s death, President Truman knew nothing about the development of the bomb that had been under way for some time.

His evaluation of whether to use it involved a calculus that compared the potential loss of life, including Japanese civilians, that would have resulted from an air-sea-land invasion of Japan vs. the estimated loss of life that might be caused by the A-Bomb. That number, incidentally, has been estimated to be 1 million.

It’s easy to criticize Truman’s decision more than 60 years later, as some people now do, because more than 200,000 Japanese citizens are thought to have been killed or injured by the A-bombs, but there is no question that it brought the war to an earlier close. It’s hard to even imagine the personal toll that making such a choice must have taken on him.

Truman also made the decision to respond to the invasion of South Korea, committing U.S. troops in what was labeled a “Police Action” at the time. Although he had the approval of the United Nations, he didn’t seek authorization from Congress before ordering U.S. forces into action.

Another example of President Truman’s grit and strength of character was his highly unpopular decision to fire Gen. Douglas MacArthur for insubordination in 1951. MacArthur, a widely acknowledged hero of World War II, was largely credited with the highly successful reorganization of the Japanese government during the U.S. occupation after the war and also had led the U.N. forces during the Korean conflict. He was very popular with the American public and many members of Congress.

But, MacArthur disagreed with Truman’s policy of limiting the Korean War to avoid a larger war with China and sent an ultimatum to the Chinese Army that caused Truman’s cease-fire efforts to fail. Truman considered this “a violation of the American constitutional principle that military commanders are subordinate to civilian leadership” and viewed MacArthur’s conduct as interfering with the president’s authority to conduct foreign policy. A Senate committee investigation subsequently vindicated his action.

Before being thrust into the presidency, Truman was generally viewed as a small-time politician with limited education and background who had little ability and owed his career to the Pendergast “political machine” in Missouri, but his core honesty and strength of character ultimately resulted in him being viewed by subsequent generations as one of our nation’s greatest presidents.

Character counts.

Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who has lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his own blog, Opinionfest.com.

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