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Mitch McConnell Is No Arthur Vandenberg

April 14, 2016

We all recall when Republican Senator Mitch McConnell from the very start of President Obama’s first term said his primary goal was to make the Democratic administration only a one-term event.  The lack of reasoning and compromise from the Republican congress has been shocking to witness, and one of the chief reasons the legislative body is held in such low regard by the electorate.   Today a book review painted a time when another Democratic president and another Republican senator had a very different view of how governing should work for the nation even when political opposites had to cut deals.

On April 12, 1945, Franklin Roosevelt died suddenly in Warm Springs, Ga., leaving Harry Truman to assume office as 33rd president of the United States. Truman, who had been reluctant to serve as vice president, told a friend: “I feel like I have been struck by a bolt of lightning.” Many wondered whether he was up to the task of commander in chief. World War II still had to be won. A postwar settlement would need to be fashioned. The low-key Missourian seemed a small-scale character for such mighty enterprises.

Watching from the Senate, Republican Arthur Vandenberg wrote to the new president with words of encouragement. “Good luck and God bless you,” he said. “Let me help you whenever I can. America marches on.” In his diary, he was more pensive: “The gravest question-mark in every American heart is about Truman. Can he swing the job?” To which the optimistic answer came, “Despite his limited capacities, I believe he can.”

Those words seem extraordinary today. The Republicans had not won a national election since 1928. Roosevelt had ridden roughshod over them in Congress with his New Deal, broke the tradition of serving only two terms and fashioned a liberal Supreme Court. After 12 years of humiliation and defeat, FDR’s death could have provided Republicans with an opportunity to get on the front foot, to take advantage of an inexperienced and uncharismatic new president. And yet here was Vandenberg, one of the leading Republicans in the Senate, saying not only that he believed the man could overcome his limitations but also that he would do everything he could to help him.

That characteristic of gracefully swallowing one’s pride in the national interest is less valued today than in the 1940s. Certainly Truman recognized its worth, mourning in 1951 the loss of “a patriot who always subordinated partisan advantage and personal interest to the welfare of the Nation.” It may seem hopelessly nostalgic to look back to some halcyon period of courtly manners and bipartisan cooperation. Yet “Harry & Arthur” shows us that it was by working together that these two men laid the foundations for the West’s victory in the Cold War. For that reason the Republican senator, as well as the Democratic president, deserves his place among those who, in Acheson’s famous phrase, were “present at the creation.”

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