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'Near-great'? 'Give 'em Hell Harry'! page 3
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


By the standards of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, these were primordial feints at social and political justice, but they were instrumental in helping add legitimacy to the still somewhat astounding proposition to some at mid-century--that black folks in America were truly equal citizens. While he could be dismayingly backward in private on the race question, in his public statements and leadership Truman was on the right side of history--and he was early.


Perhaps the "near-great" status so often conferred upon Truman by historians is an indictment of ourselves. Citizen Truman would surely rank among the greatest presidents. His sense of duty, service, honesty, and courage are nearly universally praised. His policies--largely successful in foreign affairs albeit with mixed results domestically--were still the stuff of high achievement.

Nevertheless, the shrill superlative sticks to him. Could it be that to rid Truman of this too-beloved prefix, we would fearfully consign ourselves to a higher politics, one we so desperately desire, and yet reject because of its attendant commitments and responsibilities? In Truman we see little of the Machiavellian politics of our age. This elevates Truman and shames us all the same.

How we reflect upon and honor his legacy this election season may be suggestive of what--and ultimately whom--we truly want as the next president of the United States, and for ourselves.

Saladin M. Ambar is a visiting assistant professor in the Government and Law Department at Lafayette College. A 2007-08 Miller Center fellow at the University of Virginia, he is currently writing a book about the growth of executive power in the modern American presidency.

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