Give ’em Hell, Somebody

He gave 'em hell, all right

He gave 'em hell, all right

Where is Harry Truman when you need him? Not the “buck stops here” presidential Truman, though he had his strengths. No, I mean the one who, when he was a senator, led the committee that investigated war profiteering during World War II.

Truman didn’t have a big name for himself when he entered the Senate, and he had help getting in from an old-style political machine (hmm, like the “new” style in Chicago is much different…). But he was a patriot, having bravely served during the First World War. And I don’t mean in some cushy stateside gig or as an officer away from the battlefield; Truman commanded an artillery division that was in the thick of the fighting until the end of the war.

Maybe that experience fueled his anger when he saw U.S. companies trying to exploit WWII for obscene profits. He also had general knowledge, from his years of government service, of the shenanigans that go on during the awarding of government contracts, especially with the military. As he later said, “somebody has to keep tabs on the military and all the time too.” Amen, brother.

Even before Pearl Harbor, but when war was increasingly inevitable for the United States, Truman drove thousands of miles, documenting the wasteful spending he saw at military installations. In April 1941, the committee that would later bear his name opened hearings. The military was basically giving the contractors whatever they wanted, no questions asked. Truman also learned that US companies were making sweet deals with German companies – basically run by the Nazis – that left the United States short on key industrial supplies. Of course, we weren’t at war with Germany yet, but the committee noted that the nation was paying a heavy price for the deals. (Most of this and subsequent info comes from David McCullough’s 1992 bio of Truman.)

Once war broke out, one of FDR’s advisors said the committee should be disbanded. The president said no (imagine that – a president welcoming some Congressional oversight). So the committee uncovered defense firms producing shoddy aircraft engines and inferior steel for ships. By 1943, the committee’s efforts had saved the government several billion dollars and got Truman his picture on the cover of Time. He emerged as the only member of Congress to be publicly praised by reporters for his wartime efforts.

Maybe by now you see where I’m going with this history lesson.

Who has been our Harry Truman the last eight years? The senator willing to put so much time and effort into questioning where our hundreds of billions spent in Iraq and Afghanistan are truly going? Frank Rich recently mentioned the upcoming report from the closet person to Truman we have today, Stuart W. Bowen. He, like Truman did, belongs to the party of the president carrying out the war(s). But he has never commanded the attention Truman did during WWII, and that a Republican senator would have if he had the balls to take on his own president.

All right, so they didn't wear pirate hats...

All right, so they didn't wear pirate hats...

Bowen’s report will show that U.S. taxpayers poured $50 billion into corruption and bad work during the rebuilding efforts in Iraq. And how much of that went into the coffers of just one company, one with close ties to a certain vice president? As Ann Jones describes, a similar boondoggle has been underway in Afghanistan, and surely continues as you read this. The basic thrust: US companies get contracts, deliver much less than promised (and much less than what the administration says they did), you and I foot the bill, and the problems remain. Or get worse.

The Bush-era Congress had chances to set up its own Truman Committee. The Senate voted on such a proposal three times during 2005, and each time it was shot down. And on least one occasion, not even one Republican voted for it. On the others, only Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chafee supported it. No Trumans there, clearly.

So why is it more patriotic to blindly follow your president’s wish to send troops overseas while handing out no-bid contracts and letting shoddy work slip by, than to want to challenge waste and fraud during wartime? Well, it’s not. But only one Republican would consider that providing quality equipment and services at a fair price was more important than party loyalty and fattening profits in the military-industrial complex. Amazing.

The would-be Truman, by the way, who wanted a committee to investigate fraud and waste was Byron Dorgan of North Dakota. He’s still fighting for it. I doubt he expects his picture on the cover of Time. He just realizes what Truman did: Anytime, but especially during wartime, the pursuit of unearned profits at the expense of taxpayers, our allies, and our troops is a crime. The perpetrators and their abettors in the government should be rooted out. Maybe, just maybe, the supposed change underway in Washington will do something about it. Unless this too, like the torture and illegal wiretaps, is part of the past Obama wants to leave behind.

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~ by mburgan on January 15, 2009.

3 Responses to “Give ’em Hell, Somebody”

  1. well michael, the reason we have no great congressional oversight is because they are all too busy making sure that we don’t have steroids in our nations past time. i mean isn’t it much more important that we know that roger clemens took steroids than if our gov’t is wasting billions of dollars on corrupt companies?

  2. Keep up the good work, Mike. Love reading the blog.

  3. Very apt comment David–much easier to grandstand over insignificant issues than challenge powerful special interests (don’t bite the hand that feeds you, eh?)

    And Robin, thanks for the nice words!

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