There has been speculation that no one in the nation was more surprised by President Trump’s election than Donald Trump himself.
This claim, popular with his detractors but admitted by some supporters as well, explains to a degree the awkward, amateurish nature of his first few weeks in office.
Trump, to say nothing of his staff and cabinet nominees, looks to have been unprepared to take the reins of power.
If so, he might benefit from the words of another president surprised by his ascendency to the Oval Office, Harry S. Truman. The famously straight-talking senator from Missouri had been vice president for just 82 days when President Franklin Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945.
He revealed that surprise in his first meeting with the White House press:
“Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now,” he said. “... when they told me what happened yesterday, I felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on me.”
At the time, Truman had more political experience than our newly-elected leader, but he didn’t consider that a disqualification for the job. “A president needs political understanding to run the government,” he said, “but he may be elected without it.”
And while many of Trump’s initial actions have been heavily criticized, Truman’s philosophy supports such swift, direct action. “Carry the battle to them,” he said. “Don’t let them bring it to you. Put them on the defensive and don’t ever apologize for anything.”
As luck would have it, Truman could also sagely comment on the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, though Trump might not like it:
“Whenever you put a man on the Supreme Court, he ceases to be your friend.”
As for Trump’s thin-skinned Twitter reactions to criticism, Truman would likely tell him to get over it. “This administration is going to be cussed and discussed for years to come,” he once admitted. He also said, “The president is always abused. If he isn’t, he isn’t doing anything.”
Truman might very well advise Trump to quit emphasizing the negative in his view of the world, even though his portrayal of America in distress got him elected. Remember, Truman said, “America was not built on fear. America was built on courage, on imagination and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand.”
As for Trump’s admiration of authoritarian figures like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and the strongman tactics they favor, Truman would disapprove:
“When even one American — who has done nothing wrong — is forced by fear to shut his mind and close his mouth, then all Americans are in peril.”
Equally problematic would be Trump’s disinterest in reading to learn more about how other presidents faced the problems they encountered, because Truman believed that “upon books the collective education of (mankind) depends; they are the sole instruments of registering, perpetuating and transmitting thought.”
Rumors now have it that Trump may not be interested in being chief executive after all, and may resign the office before his term is over. As Truman put it, “It sure is hell to be president,”
But again, Harry has that contingency covered, with a quote as equally famous as the sign on his desk that declared, “The Buck Stops Here.”
Donald, he would say, “if you can’t stand the heat ...”