When former president Harry Truman died in 1972, Washington Star columnist Mary McGrory wrote the following: “He did not require to be loved. He did not expect to be followed blindly. Congressional opposition never struck him as subversive, nor did he regard his critics as traitors. He never whined.”
Sixty-four years after Truman left office, Give’em Hell Harry is a hot topic again. During President Trump’s appearance before the U.N. General Assembly in September, he quoted Truman. When Trump made his “fire and fury” threat to North Korea in August, the press was quick to point out how closely his words mirrored Truman’s ultimatum to Japan after the Hiroshima bombing. Who did alt-right hero Judge Roy Moore quote after winning a Republican runoff for Alabama’s open Senate seat? The unapologetic liberal Harry Truman.
The press is full of Truman too: “The G-20 Summit, and Why Trump is No Harry Truman” (New Yorker), “What Truman Can Teach Trump” (Wall Street Journal), “Trump Echoes Truman But Situation Differs” (MSNBC).
Why are we getting so much Truman these days? Never mind that the beginning of the Truman era bears uncanny similarities to Trump’s, from the “accidental” nature of their presidencies (few saw either of these men coming) to a sudden downturn in our relations with Moscow to the possibility of nuclear war in the Far East. The real reason we are hearing Truman’s name is because it carries so much political currency. How this came to be can be summed up neatly in the image America formed of Truman during the first year of his presidency — in contrast to the image a huge majority of Americans have of our chief executive today.
Truman rose from vice president to president on April 12, 1945, following the death of Franklin Roosevelt. He had been an obscure politician. Robert Nixon, a White House correspondent at the time, later said, “Here was a man who came into the White House almost as though he had been picked at random off the street.” Truman came to the presidency with no experience in foreign relations, during the climactic moments of World War II. He brought with him simple American principles, and these values he expressed through a sign he placed on his desk during his first days in office, a quote from Mark Twain: "Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest."
Truman’s White House staff and Cabinet formed opinions of him during his first months. “Nothing but the most favorable reaction ... I think he is going to measure up splendidly to the tremendous job which faces him” (Under Secretary of State Joseph Grew). “He proved to be easy to work with and ... one of the nicest people I have ever known” (Chief of Staff Admiral William Leahy). “He is capable and an extremely fine gentleman for whom everyone has the highest regard” (Assistant Press Secretary Eben Ayers).
Truman held his first press conference on April 17, 1945. The Missourian spoke with such take-it-or-leave-it gumption, the press responded with unprecedented applause. “His first press conferences were wonderful,” press secretary Jonathan Daniels later said. Truman had an often-tumultuous relationship with the press (in his diary, he once compared reporters to “prostitutes”). But the press respected him because he did not lie. If he could not tell the truth, he said nothing at all. In a letter to his mother and sister, Truman said he told his press staff that "my family all told the truth all the time.”
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And what about the country at large? When Truman became president, his obscurity confounded the nation, yet he quickly unified it behind him. Not yet five months into his tenure, a Gallup poll set his approval rating at 87%, higher than his predecessor Franklin Roosevelt’s had ever been. According to the poll, Americans believed Truman to be “fair minded ... a hard worker ... a realist who looks at things squarely and seeks good advice ... (and has) no crackpot ideas.”
Three months into the Truman era, the Washington Post described the country’s reaction to him in a story called “Whole Nation Reflects Era of Good Feeling Inspired by President”: “The mood of the United States is one of extraordinary friendliness. Americans appear to be more at ease with each other. They are more inclined to talk about national affairs, less inclined to argue. In short there is a cordiality in the air that this country hasn’t known in years.”
This is the image America formed of Truman during his first months in office. He didn’t require to be loved, didn’t ask to be followed blindly, and didn’t regard those who did not support his views as traitors. He never whined! That is how you earn respect in Washington.
A.J. Baime is the author of The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months that Changed the World, which was published last week.