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

October 23, 2008 12:16 am


In 1951, Truman tells radio/television audiences that he has fired Douglas MacArthur as Commander of the Far East. edamba23A.jpg.jpg

President Harry S. Truman holds up an edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune, which, based on early results, mistakenly announced Thomas E. Dewey as the victor in 1948.

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.

All too often this has been inverted in administrations. Part of the genius of Truman's integrity was in selecting and working with the best minds available, at the expense of taking the credit himself (see: the Marshall Plan). Truman certainly came from "ordinary" stock--but he didn't have to play ordinary. He chose to.

Second, despite fits of anger and occasional pettiness, Truman was largely a leader of restraint. He understood that time was an essential ingredient in the face of political upheaval. He acted quickly--too quickly in light of the trend toward presidential unilateralism--on the crisis in Korea. But, his quick response was largely a defensive posture and limited to the theater of conflict.

Some at the time romanticized about America's atomic monopoly and uncontested power in the early days of the Cold War. While Truman did authorize the first use of the atomic bomb--a horrid choice to be sure--he did so in the context of a potentially horrific option of not doing so. Truman may be damned for his decision, but we cannot live out what damnation lay at the door had he not.


It should not be forgotten that the temptation to escalate the war in Korea was great, and despite the auguring of the chief military commander "on the ground"--one Douglas MacArthur--Truman held the line to what was permissible under the authority of the United Nations and the dictates of reason. Removing a wayward MacArthur from the field was among the most difficult decisions any American president would have to make, and yet, in the end, Truman's capacity to restrain himself enabled him to restrain others.

Restraint is an invisible virtue--yet it is a fundamental precept of democracy that deliberation and forethought add temperance to the volatility of uncertainty. The next president would be well-served to remember this as the knife's edge turns in Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan.

Finally, Truman was infused with a rudimentary sense of fairness. When the simple thing to do was to look at the electoral map and "hold the South," Truman made a moral, rather than a political calculus in his support of anti-lynching legislation, broad civil rights for African-Americans, and the beginning of desegregation in the armed forces.

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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