INDEPENDENCE, Missouri — Who today thinks about Harry Truman?
A lot of people, it turns out, and that is one reason why the Truman Presidential Library and Museum is closing next week. That may sound like the kind of riddle that was prominent in this region during the Truman years. Here’s one from 1947:
I walked out beside a head,
I seen the living and the dead,
Some stood and some fled.
We will reward you for finishing this column by providing the riddle’s answer. But the answer to the mystery of the shuttering of the presidential library here is that the 33rd president is so popular today that the curators and archivists need more space, and an enlargement and a sprucing up of the structure that matches Truman’s historical record will take a year.
Actually the re-evaluation of the presidency of Harry Truman, who left office with history’s lowest approval ratings, has been going on for years — and has accelerated recently.
“You can’t consider any contemporary issue without seeing that Truman was involved in it — Korea, NATO, civil rights,” said Dr. Kurt Graham, the library’s director. “But we are also in a time with an absence of leadership — and here was a guy who formed friendships and made alliances even though he was a partisan. It’s a great legacy, and it speaks to a time and condition we just don’t have anymore.”
Truman, of course, was an accident of history but, in retrospect if not in real time, a happy accident. He ascended to the White House after a calamity that jolted the world, the death of wartime President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Americans asked at FDR’s death, in the argot of the time, a disturbing question: Can he swing this job? Truman himself wasn’t sure. On April 13, 1945, a day after Roosevelt’s death, the new president beseeched the capital press:
“Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don’t know whether you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the stars and all the planets had fallen on me.”
He wasn’t the only one who felt that way. The last president without a college degree and a political figure tied to a primitive but powerful local machine, Truman was a former senator whose vice presidency was perhaps the most isolated of the 20th century. He and the president had conferred only a handful of times. He was unaware of the Manhattan Project that at that moment was developing the atomic bomb, and it wasn’t until a dozen days into his presidency that Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson gave him a comprehensive briefing on the weapon whose use would define his presidency and forever transform global politics.
But there was unseen depth to Truman, and he possessed an unusual but indispensable preparation for the task, in part here in the Kansas City area and in part during World War I.
“In the Great War, the civilian Harry Truman, the bank clerk and future haberdasher, proved himself a leader, was promoted, was commended, went overseas, was shot at, and held command of a body of men under fire,” the late University of Virginia historian William Lee Miller wrote in 2012.
The Miller assessment was by no means the first trumpet blast in the rehabilitation of the reputation of Truman, who had been affectionately celebrated in a 1973 oral biography by Merle Miller called “Plain Speaking.” Then, two years later, James Whitmore began touring with a one-man show about Truman called “Give ‘Em Hell, Harry.” (Later, Clifton Daniel Truman, born four years after the president left the White House, would play his grandfather in a revival of the production.)
But the big Truman-reputation breakthrough came in 1992, with the publication of David McCullough’s blockbuster biography, winner of the Pulitzer Prize. McCullough portrayed Truman as “the kind of president the founding fathers had in mind for the country.” In celebrating what he described as “his inner iron, his bedrock faith in the democratic process, his trust in the American people, and his belief that history was the final, all-important judge of performance,” McCullough not only discovered new virtues in Truman but also shone new light on his presidency.
“I feel very strongly in giving credit where credit is due,” McCullough said in an interview, “particularly when credit is long overdue.”
The renovation of the Truman library, which until it closed didn’t have the verve of the president it celebrated, is long overdue. Indeed, so uninviting were its dark halls that a visitor might have been tempted to walk through it at the military pace of 120 steps a minute, which Truman himself favored in the White House and in his retirement here at 219 Delaware Avenue after his presidency.
The new look — a phrase Truman’s successor, Dwight Eisenhower, employed to describe his national-security policy — will give fresh prominence to Truman’s early life, his courtship of Bess Wallace, and the signature events of the era: the Korean War, the dispute with Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the desegregation of the military, the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift, the Truman Doctrine.
Above all, it will redeem what Sen. Adlai E. Stevenson III of Illinois said was the lesson of Truman’s life, which he described as “an object lesson in the vitality of popular government; an example of the ability of this society to yield up, from the most remarkable origins, the most remarkable men.”
When the library reopens, the country will be in the throes of its next presidential election — what Truman characterized as “a great event in the life of a free people [that] gives them a chance to decide their own national destiny.”
Truman, his presidency and the 1948 election that the Chicago Tribune misreported in its famous DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN headline were themselves a riddle. But Truman and the American people answered that riddle, with aplomb and with a sense of national purpose.
This column opened with an Ozark riddle. The answer: a live wasp in the head of a dead horse. Come to think of it, Truman was a live wasp. The dead head belonged to my columnist forebears who believed, every one of them, that the president’s re-election campaign was doomed. That wasp remains alive, buzzing around our politics even today.