A record 30 million people were watching Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s televised farewell address to Congress on April 19, 1951. President Truman had relieved him of his command in Korea because he feared MacArthur threatened a wider conflict by attacking China.
“In war,” MacArthur declared, “there can be no substitute for victory.” The general was wildly cheered. For a time there was talk in Republican circles of running MacArthur for president. One senator confided in a reporter he had never feared more for his country than during MacArthur’s speech. “I honestly felt that if the speech had gone on much longer there might have been a march on the White House.”
In his Truman biography, David McCullough said Truman had not listened to MacArthur or watched on television — he kept busy at his desk. He did, however, read MacArhur’s speech. Privately, he said he thought it “a bunch of damn B.S.” In time, enthusiasm for the general waned.
The invitation by Republicans in bringing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel to address Congress was similarly an insult to a sitting president. As many as 60 Democrats boycotted the event, but that was not enough. All of them should have left empty seats.
Now Netanyahu is apologizing — not for playing a key role in rudeness to the president of 320 million Americans — but to racist comments concerning the 1.4 million Arab citizens of his own country (In a nation of 8.3 million, Jews make up 75 percent of the Israeli population.) On the eve of the election, Netanyahu said Arab citizens were going to the polls in large numbers. Many interpreted this as racist, a last-minute bid to win a close election. According to The New York Times, the White House remains furious with Netanyahu for appearing to turn his back “on a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict.”
After the voting, Netanyahu said, as politicians often do when their remarks backfire, that he was misunderstood. He insisted he was the same fellow with the same convictions. He supported the idea of a Palestinian state, though now he equivocated — not under present conditions.
The Obama White House was not impressed. It said a two-state solution “remains our goal today because it is the only way to secure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state.”
In his day, Harry Truman was snubbed by a Republican Congress who invited MacArthur to speak, just as an invitation to Netanyahu was a slap at Barack Obama. Today most people say Truman did the right thing by firing MacArthur. It made him unpopular, but not forever. Historians rank him today as among the near-great presidents.
Who knows what history will say about Obama, but I have a hunch the Republicans will rue the day they insulted the office of the presidency.