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'Near-great'? 'Give 'em Hell Harry'!
Hail to the Chiefs/Seven presidents who made a difference

 In 1951, Truman tells radio/television audiences that he has fired Douglas MacArthur as Commander of the Far East.
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Date published: 10/23/2008

Last of a seven-part series about U.S. presidents.


--What possibly could Harry S. Truman teach us today? The first modern president to lack a college education, infused with double-breasted tradition, and out of what David Halberstam called the "black-and-white" era of the '50s, Truman seems beyond passe in our Blu-ray, iPhone, high-def era. He lacks the cool of Camelot coveted by Democrats or the ideological fervor of Reagan esteemed by Republicans.

Of course, neither Camelot nor the Reagan Revolution really delivered all that has been claimed or hoped for in partisan mythos. And that is the rub--there is no idea of Harry Truman, not in the same way there is, say, for FDR, JFK, and Reagan. This is because the bedrock of Truman's legacy was a self-generated and timeless sense of virtue. Yet, virtue, for all of its appeal, is cold and mostly grim.

Still, Truman, more than any other president, offers an object lesson in the lamentable term "near-great." Sixty years and 10 presidents removed from Truman's famed 1948 electoral victory, Americans would today rhapsodize over a comparable string of accomplishments. They are stunning in any context: the Marshall Plan, NATO, the Berlin Airlift, Korea and containment--and the courage to push for civil rights and universal health care--despite the odds and political risks.

And while there is no denying Truman's shortcomings and lack of oratorical gifts--Rushmore has not welcomed the flummoxed tongue--his White House tenure ranks among the most important and successful in history, even if this is evidenced by the fact that our collective memory takes its most significant achievements for granted.


In essence, Truman's personal and political success was owed to three virtues: integrity, restraint, and fairness.

Few presidents in recent vintage have exercised personal integrity in the manner of Truman, and despite his admittedly bull-headed support for his friends--some directly out of central casting under "crony"--Truman's appointments to the biggest offices always passed the cringe-test. His administration was top-heavy with competence and intermittent brilliance.

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