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Commentary: What Today's Politicians Could Learn From Harry S. Truman

Frank Gatteri/Wikimedia Commons

I don’t know about you, but I am sick and tired of the 2016 presidential campaign.

A fluke of the calendar delays voting this year until the very last day allowed by law: November 8, the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November.

Maybe it was also dumb luck that one of the best presidents of modern times, Harry Truman, was elected on November 2, 1948, the earliest possible date for voting. The 2016 campaign has made me think a great deal about Truman, whose historic eight years in office brought the end of World War II, the dropping of the atomic bomb, the start of the Cold War and the reign of fear known as the McCarthy era.

Most modern historians place Truman in the top 10 of American presidents. That distinction demonstrates how time will change reputations.

When he left office in January 1953, Truman’s popularity stood at a measly 20 percent or so. That pitiful number compares with another post-war president, George W. Bush, about a decade ago. 

Truman was blamed for just about everything that followed World War II. His saving grace was that he simply didn’t care what people thought. And he told them so.

As a farm boy in Missouri, he learned courtesy and respect for his elders. Even after he went to Washington to the U.S. Senate in 1934, he wrote his aging mother every day — that’s what dutiful sons did. He had an old fashioned affection for his wife, Bess, and his only child, Margaret. He called Bess “the boss,” and he defended Margaret’s attempts to make it as a concert singer by threatening to punch a hostile critic in the nose.

Although he grew up in Missouri, a racially segregated state, Truman personally ordered the desegregation of the American military and encouraged other actions to end Jim Crow. His actions were so unpopular that the Democratic party split wide open in 1948, with Southerners following the Dixiecrat candidate, Strom Thurmond.

Truman’s friend and business partner Edward Jacobson, an Army buddy who was Jewish, persuaded the president to recognize the state of Israel in 1948.

Like another candidate we know, Truman declared bankruptcy when the men’s clothing store he and Jacobson operated failed. But rather than escape his debts, he spent the next two decades repaying his creditors every dime.

Most of all, Truman was unpretentious and modest. When he returned home after he left the White House in 1953, he and Bess strolled up the front walk and into the house holding hands. Reporters asked him what he did when he got home. Took the grips up to the attic, the 33rd president said, using the old fashioned word for luggage.

We may never see another president like Harry Truman. I hope we do. But at the end of this long campaign, memories of him get better and better.

During his 43 years at The Courier-Journal, Keith Runyon reported and wrote editorials about the University of Louisville from 1973 to 2012. He holds degrees from the College of Arts and Sciences and the law school. In 2012, he received the Society of Professional Journalists’ national award in editorial writing for his commentary on the proposed merger of the University of Louisville Hospital and Catholic Health Initiatives.
WFPL publishes commentaries on Fridays. Read more.

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