How to stand up to Republicans: lessons from Truman and Eagleton

Eight years after former President Harry Truman died in 1972, Missouri Senator Thomas Eagleton was involved in a tough re-election campaign. His opponent was former St. Louis County Supervisor, Gene McNary. Eagleton was very popular in spite of the fact that 1980 was trending towards a heavily Republican year. Ronald Reagan swept Jimmy Carter out of office, and Republicans picked up a net of twelve seats in the Senate to take control of the upper chamber. The number of Democrats in the Senate fell from 58 to 46.

Republicans targeted Democrats with their so-called “moral majority” and a PAC known as the National Conservative Political Action Committee. It was a forerunner to the ones constructed more recently by Karl Rove.

Eagleton was initially considered unbeatable because (a) he had served his Missouri constituents exceptionally well, and (b) he was no longer the pro-gun control, large spending progressive that he had been when first elected in 1968 (or at least he didn’t espouse those positions). But when Republicans sensed that they were going steamroll the Democrats, they added Eagleton to their list of highly vulnerable Democrats.

McNary was in many ways a strong candidate for the Republicans, well-spoken, handsome, and familiar with the working of government. However, he had somewhat of a tin ear when it came to tuning in to the wishes of the people. He made the mistake of asserting that if Harry Truman were still living [in 1980], he would become Republican. Eagleton quickly saw the absurdity of this contention and immediately wrote Truman’s daughter Margaret Truman Daniel with a request that she send a public letter to McNary straightening him out. She noted the absurdity of McNary’s assertion for its “lack of knowledge both of Harry Truman and of recent American history. As most Americans know, Harry Truman was not just a Democrat. He was a dyed-in-the-wool ‘give-em-hell’ Democrat.” The kicker was when she related the following about her father:

He [Harry Truman] once summed up his view of the Republican Party thus: “… I have studied the Republican Party for years at close hand …. And I have discovered where the Republicans stand on most of the major issues. Since they won’t tell you themselves, I am going to tell you.” The letter included the following Truman assertions: Republicans “approve of the American farmer – but they are willing to help him go broke. They stand foursquare for the American home – but not for housing. They are strong for labor – but they are stronger for restricting labor’s rights. They favor a minimum wage – the smaller the minimum the better. They endorse educational opportunity for all – but they won’t spend money for teachers or for schools. They think modern medical care and hospital are fine – for people who can afford them.”

More than sixty years after Truman’s assertion of the nature of the Republican Party, most Democrats hesitate to set the record about the mistaken notions of many Republicans. That was also the case in 1980 as Eagleton struggled to win his third term. But Eagleton received the gift of Republican gab, something which is happening to Barack Obama in advance of the 2012 election, thanks to the likes of Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, and even the likely GOP nominee, Mitt Romney.

Truman spoke of Republican views on agriculture, housing, labor including the minimum wage, education, and health care. In all cases, he asserted that Republicans wanted to do nothing more than protect the interests of the “haves.” Eagleton drove this point home to voters and was able to buck the Republican tide in 1980 and win his election in Missouri.

If anything is certain it is that Republicans will continue to speak with arrogance about entitlements that they regard as due to the “haves” in our society. Democrats can retreat as if they received a left hook from Smokin’ Joe Frazier, or they can go toe-to-toe with the Republicans and explain how the interests of most Americans are jeopardized and eventually damaged by Republican policies. Truman won unexpectedly in 1948 by standing up to Republicans; Eagleton did the same thing thirty-two years later.

Barack Obama’s task is more difficult that Truman or Eagleton’s because in word and deed he has capitulated to many Republican policies. However, in recent months he has begun to stand his ground. We’ll learn much more about the president’s fortitude over the next year as we see, in the words of Truman, if he can “stand the heat of the kitchen.” When the going gets tough for the president, it would serve him well to look back on the wisdom and fortitude of Harry Truman and Tom Eagleton.


Some information for this book was gathered from Call Me Tom by James N. Giglio [University of Missouri Press, 2011]

Tom Eagleton was a remarkable individual from whom we can learn a great deal about what has happened in the United States since 1968 when he was first elected. We will provide more information on him in upcoming Occasional Planet posts.