April 11, 2016

“A statesman is a politician who’s been dead ten or fifteen years.”

During Harry S Truman’s years as President of the United States, from 1945 to 1954, he was known as a feisty politician.

It earned him the nickname “Give ‘em Hell Harry.”

That nickname emerged during his 1948 campaign as the Democratic presidential nominee, when supporters began yelling “Give ‘em Hell, Harry!” at his campaign events.

It was further cemented by two of Truman’s legendary quotes from that campaign.

He told Alben Barkley, his Vice Presidential running mate: “I’m going to fight hard…I’m going to give them hell.”

Referring to the Republican-dominated Congress (which he memorably dubbed the “Do Nothing Congress”) to and Thomas E. Dewey, his Republican opponent in the 1948 election, Truman purportedly said: “I don’t give them hell. I tell the truth and they think it’s hell.”

Some people today think of Truman as being more of a “statesman” than recent crops of politicians, in the sense of somehow being more above rough-and-tumble political maneuvering and clashes.

Given the craziness of the 2016 presidential campaign, it’s not hard to believe.

However, I suspect that if Truman were still alive and someone asked him about the difference between a politician and a statesman, he would recycle the famous definition he gave in a speech on April 11, 1958.

Speaking that day to the Reciprocity Club in Washington, D.C., the then-retired president said: “A statesman is a politician who’s been dead ten or fifteen years.”

It’s a funny line. But when you know the context, you find that Truman was making a serious point about the pragmatic business of being an effective politician and running a government.

Here’s the full quote, as recorded in the April 12, 1958 edition of The New York World Telegram & Sun:

      “I’m proud that I’m a politician. A politician is a man who understands government, and it takes a politician to run a government. A statesman is a politician who's been dead ten or fifteen years.”

Truman’s remark was a take-off on an earlier famous quotation by another politician, Thomas Brackett Reed.

Reed was a Congressman from Maine who served as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1889 to 1891 and again from 1895 to 1899.

In 1892, he received a letter from a citizen who asked him: “What is a statesman?”

Reed replied: “A statesman is a successful politician who is dead.”

This is now sometimes quoted without the word “successful.” The longer version is used by the earlier and more scholarly sources that cite it.

In March of 1892, news reports about Reed’s definition of a statesman prompted a response by a Boston man, who sent him a snide telegram that said: “Why don’t you die and become a statesman?”

Reed sent back a telegram that quoted a proverbial saying about fame.

“Not yet,” he replied. “Fame is the last infirmity of noble minds.”

By the way, there’s another famous quote by Harry Truman that’s linked to the date April 11.

On April 11, 1951, Truman announced his decision to fire General Douglas MacArthur as commander of U.S. forces in Korea, after MacArthur publicly disagreed with Truman’s policy of limiting the expansion of the Korean War.

More than two decades later, when biographer Merle Miller was interviewing Truman for the book Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman (1974), Miller asked the former president to talk about his rationale for firing MacArthur.

Truman’s blunt and salty answer became a famous quote when the book was published. He told Miller:

“I fired him 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 laws for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail.”

To read more background on that Truman quote, see my post about it at this link.

For more on quotes about the difference between a statesman and a politician, see this post by word maven Barry Popik on his “Big Apple” website.

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