Former US president Harry Truman was a man known both for his blunt, straightforward talk and his frank and often-uncomplimentary assessments of people.
One of his favorite targets was a member of the Republican Party, Richard Nixon. Nixon entered Congress in 1947 when Truman was president, and in the ensuing years they had many battles.
It was not surprising therefore that when Nixon and then-senator John F. Kennedy were campaigning for the presidency in 1960, Truman, even though he also had no great love for Kennedy, came out with this well-known quote: “Richard Nixon is a no-good, lying bastard. He can lie out of both sides of his mouth at the same time, and if he ever caught himself telling the truth, he’d lie just to keep his hand in.”
At that time Truman went on to predict that Nixon was easily beatable. Kennedy won narrowly, but Nixon was by no means through. In 1962, he ran for governor of California and lost, but he came back and won the presidency in 1968 and was re-elected in 1972. He and vice president Spiro Agnew ran on a ticket of law and order. Thus, history, along with Nixon, seemed to be proving Truman wrong.
Then came Watergate, and this seemingly small matter demonstrated without question how Nixon could and did lie, bringing down his presidency.
Despite the successes Nixon had had in his years of public service, his character flaws and traits proved to be his downfall. When the pressure was on, as Truman predicted, Nixon would lie.
Today, Taiwan faces a situation with a president who has also been elected twice, once with a large majority in 2008 and then with a diminishing majority in 2012. There were people early on who declared President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) phony and incompetent, but the majority did not seem to think so. In general, the media also gave Ma a “buy.” This continued until his image was severely challenged by The Economist magazine in November 2012, when it branded him as a “bumbler,” a moniker by which he came to be known internationally.
Ma survived that branding, but his tarnished image now caused greater scrutiny to be given to his actions and decisions.
Like most politicians, Ma has always had critics, but his image makers and public relations team had managed to ward off any serious attacks. Similarly, Taiwan had not had a person with both Truman’s past stature, media access and requisite bluntness to chastise Ma in public. The game-changer that leveled the playing field proved to be modern technology coupled with the Sunflower movement.
Because the movement was not aligned with a political party, it could not be accused of party bias. None of its members were running for office; they had more to lose than to gain. Thus, as a tipping point, the movement was able to proceed far beyond calling Ma a bumbler. Ma’s inner character, like that of Nixon’s, was now being brought into question across the nation and to the outer world.
What Truman over the years had been able to see and point out about Nixon was the inner self that lay behind his actions. He perceived the inner paradigms and goals that were behind exterior activity. Nixon wanted to be in the center of decisionmaking so much that he was prepared to lie if necessary just to keep his hand in.
In addition, so great was Nixon’s confidence in his abilities that he secretly gave orders to have tape recordings made of important meetings in the White House. His reason was to provide posterity with a record of the way critical or momentous decisions were made for the country under his presidency. Ironically it would be some of those very recordings that would give the lie to Nixon’s denials that Watergate was of his doing.