I always loved this quote of “Give ‘em hell, Harry” Truman’s: “I fired General MacArthur because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the President. I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that’s not against the law for generals…” As the Saturday Review put it in their comment about Merle Miller’s 1974 biography,
Plain Speaking, “…an American original.” It’s a gross understatement to say the thirty-third President of the United States didn’t mince words. He simply never said anything he didn’t mean and meant every single thing he ever said. There were no gray areas. Ever. “Harry’s words were never fancy,” Miller writes, “but they were never obscure, either. You never had to try to figure out what he was up to; he told you what he was up to. And as they said about him back in Independence, he was a man of his word.” And his word was good.
It’s a centuries old expression: “A man (or woman) is only as good as his (or her) word…” No better. No worse. That was okay with Truman. He had two signs on his desk. One famously said, “The buck stops here.” As Miller writes, “If he made mistakes they were his. And he never blamed anyone else for them.” The other sign, from Mark Twain, said, “Always do right. This will gratify some people & astonish the rest.”
Truman didn’t care whom he gratified and whom he astonished. And he did plenty of both.
“One’s blood congeals at the thought of how far we have gone since those days,” Miller writes. “And it’s been all downhill all the way.” (And remember he wrote Plain Speaking forty years ago…) “Once Harry found out that a couple of his appointees had been ‘influence peddling’ – how archaic those guys on the take for 5 percent seem these days – and, without hesitation, he threw them downstairs, right out in front of God, the electorate, and everybody.”
I wonder what Merle Miller would say (or Harry, for that matter…) about the “shenanigans,” as my grandfather would put it, that go on today – the graceful “sidestepping” around the truth, the clear-eyed “I had no direct knowledge of the incident you’re referring to…” statements, the “now I mean it, now I don’t” behavior – in business, in politics, on the international stage and in our everyday lives. Hey, that’s how it is, right? Get used to it.
The problem is, even perfectly “good” people can get used to just about anything. Even breaking their words. I mean, it’s so easy. You said you’d “be there” – the appointment, the meeting, the teleconference, the dinner party – but then you decided not to be. So you made up some very creative excuse for why you simply couldn’t make it. (I mean, you’re not going to call and say you just didn’t feel like it, right?) We’ve all done it. So what’s the big deal? Here’s the big deal: It adds up. Day by day, word by word. People notice. And – day by day – you lose credibility. And when that happens you lose big. Because the thing about having credibility is, it comes down to the simplest of all daily transactions: giving – and keeping – your word. And if you can’t do that, none of the other words you say will matter.
When Merle Miller asked Harry Truman if it were true that the American Presidency was the most powerful office in the world, Truman replied, “Oh, no. Oh, my, no. About the biggest power the President has…is the power to persuade people to do what they ought to do without having to be persuaded. There are a lot of other powers written in the Constitution and given to the President, but it’s that power to persuade people… that’s the biggest. And if the man who is President doesn’t understand that, if he thinks he’s too big to do the necessary persuading, then he’s in for big trouble, and so is the country.” But here’s a fact: You can’t persuade anyone to walk from here to the kitchen (where the heat is…) if you have no credibility…if you’ve traded it for the easy way out, for the momentary “win”…for today’s vote. If you’re out of credibility, you’re out of luck.
So give it your all. Give us your word. And given ‘em hell…