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Opinion What Joe Biden can learn from Harry Truman

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, left, and his vice-presidential running mate Harry S. Truman on the campaign trail in 1944. (AP)

No presidential transition has been as dangerous as the one Donald Trump has been putting Americans through this month – with the possible exception of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s deplorable treatment of his own vice president, Harry S. Truman.

Throughout the 1944 campaign, both Roosevelt and Truman knew FDR was a dying man. The sitting president instructed Truman to avoid airplanes because “one of us needs to stay alive.” After the pair was elected in an electoral landslide, a friend told Truman that he would soon be president. “I’m afraid you’re right,” the newly elected vice president replied, “and it scares the hell out of me.”

Truman had good reason to be concerned. Just a dozen years earlier, he had been a lowly county bureaucrat in Missouri concerned with little more than road building and handling payroll. And, still, Roosevelt kept the momentous development of the atomic bomb secret from him. Only after his first Cabinet meeting as president, when Secretary of War Henry Stimson asked for a word in private, did Truman learn of what he would later call “the development of a new explosive of almost unbelievable destructive power.”

Despite Roosevelt’s recklessness, the new president guided the United States to victory in the Second World War and would soon construct a post-war foreign policy that ushered in the American Century while checking Joseph Stalin’s designs on Western Europe. Truman’s dramatic break from 150 years of isolationism, inspired by George Washington’s farewell address, guaranteed America’s victory in its “long twilight struggle” against communism.

Truman’s cumulative record is nothing short of astonishing. In a few short years, the 33rd president would champion the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, NATO and a visionary foreign policy that would define the United States’ role on the world stage for 70 years. That bipartisan approach would run uninterrupted through 12 presidents until Trump’s reckless and irresponsible presidency.

Like Truman, Joe Biden enters the White House facing a world in crisis. The global coronavirus pandemic is racing across America’s heartland; a generation of economic growth stands at risk; democracy is in retreat; and China’s rise has created a bipolar rivalry much like the one Truman inherited.

Biden should look to Truman’s example as he seeks to navigate numerous crises abroad while dealing with a divided government at home. Unlike his predecessor, who surrounded himself with former caddies and ideological cranks, Biden should see to it that his administration is run by the best and the brightest minds the United States has to offer. So far, his early White House and Cabinet choices have been promising.

For five years, Trump and British Brexiteers heaped contempt upon experts, and their repeated political failures show the high cost of their ignorance. Truman’s administration, by comparison, was filled with what historians Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas called “the wise men.” Gen. George C. Marshall organized the allies’ victory in World War II; Dean Acheson was the architect of Truman’s revolutionary foreign policy; George Kennan was the diplomat who first warned of Soviet designs on world domination; and W. Averell Harriman was Truman’s ambassador to the U.S.S.R. Like the rest of his foreign policy team, Harriman was uniquely suited for his assignment, having first visited Russia in 1899, when Nicholas II was czar. Truman surrounded himself with gifted diplomats and advisers; Biden should do the same.

Biden should also follow the example of the “Man from Missouri” by striving to conduct a bipartisan foreign policy. As challenging as that task might be in 2020, it was no easier bringing Democrats and Republicans together in 1947. Republicans had just regained majorities in the House and Senate for the first time since Herbert Hoover was president, and they remained committed isolationists, having regressed into a “Fortress America” stance after the Great War. Then, as later, the Senate would prove to be an impregnable citadel of isolationism. But through patience and a stubborn persistence, Truman moved the United States beyond the destructive policy that had facilitated the rise of Hitler and led to yet another world war in 1939.

Like Joe Biden, Harry Truman spent much of his career in Washington being underestimated by elitists. A prominent historian and journalist described Truman as “strange little man.” The New York Times dismissed him as a “rube.” Time called FDR’s 1944 selection for vice president “the mousy little man from Missouri”; others mocked Roosevelt’s pick as “the Second Missouri Compromise.” Even after he was president, the slights continued. Following Truman’s eight years in the White House, he returned to Independence, Mo., with the lowest approval rating of any president.

It would take historians a generation to grasp what Winston Churchill understood of Truman in his time: “You, more than any other man, have saved Western civilization.”

Let us hope the Man from Missouri’s extraordinary life can provide guidance and inspiration to our next president as he leads America through what will certainly be four eventful years.

Joe Scarborough, a Post contributing columnist, hosts the MSNBC show “Morning Joe.” He is the author of the new book, “Saving Freedom: Truman, the Cold War, and the Fight for Western Civilization.”

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