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February 14, 2007

Gauging A Presidential Legacy

Kevin E. Dayhoff

Recently political pundits have spent a great deal of effort pondering the legacy of President George W. Bush. Of course, those of us who consider ourselves to be students of history understand that history needs much more time and distance in order to accurately gauge the legacy and historical impact of any particular president.

Yet, uncannily, there are many parallels shared in the legacy of our 33rd president, Harry S Truman and President Bush, our 43rd president; and it is only understandable that the comparisons persist.

I took the opportunity Monday to tour President Truman's Key West White House, known as the "Little White House," in order to re-acquaint myself with the great legacy of the now-legendary president.

After the tour I interviewed the executive director of the Little White House Museum, Robert J. Wolz, at great length. The tour guide, David Lynch and Mr. Wolz are both walking encyclopedias on the life and times of President Truman.

Mr. Wolz says, with a certain "I told you so" confidence, that it is "remarkable that President Truman has gone from the least popular president of all time to the fifth most successful."

President Truman first arrived in Key West in November 1946, just days after the majority party in Congress had changed in the mid-term elections. In his case, Republicans reclaimed Congress for the first time since the administration of Republican President Herbert Hoover, the man who had immediately preceded President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

That first visit came after President Truman's first 19 months in office. "He's exhausted" and he came to Key West "to recover from a cold" at the suggestion of Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, Mr. Wolz said.

Throughout the remainder of his presidency, Harry Truman worked in the Key West White House for 175 days, or 10 percent of his time in office, during a total of 11 visits.

Mr. Wolz credits him for the "transition to the modern presidency." He was the first president to embody that "the job of the president never ends."

When President Truman declined to seek another term in 1952, he had an approval rating of 22 percent - a rating that is even lower than President Bush's is now.

Simplistically, this is what many Bush supporters seize upon when pondering the legacy of this presidency - that with the passage of time, history will come around to eventually appreciate his positions and initiatives on the domestic front, Korea and in the Middle East.

All three were areas of preoccupation for President Truman.

In explaining his initiatives and policies, many compare President Bush's plainspoken and relatively unsophisticated manner of speech to that of President Truman, often praised as an "uncommon common man" president. Yet, in stark contrast with President Bush - President Truman was the only president to serve after 1870 without having earned a college degree.

Then-Senator Truman had represented his native Missouri since 1935 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt tapped him to be his running mate in 1944, replacing Henry Wallace, considered to be too liberal for Democrats in the upcoming election. He had been vice president of the United States for 83 days when President Roosevelt suddenly died on April 12, 1945.

In the published proceedings of the June 2003 Key West symposium on "The National Security Legacy of Harry S Truman," Lt. George M. Elsey, who served as an aide to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, reports that President Truman "was unprepared for his responsibilities insofar as foreign and military affairs were concerned. FDR had cavalierly ignored all his vice presidents on such matters, as had earlier presidents."

And it is here where we come upon one of the legacies of President Truman and the foundation of one of the comparisons to President Bush - the unprecedented role of a powerful vice president.

Lieutenant Elsey cites six legacies of President Truman in his June 2003 presentation, several of which are instructive in understanding the modern office of the presidency.

One, "Truman changed forever the role of the vice president."

"The second legacy is the pattern Truman set for his successors on how to act when world events require a major change in policy." Of course, the parallel here is President Bush's response to the September 11, 2001, terrorists' attacks on our home soil.

One of the strongest parallels is President Truman's emphasis on "priority one - national security;" his fourth legacy, according to Lieutenant Elsey.

Lt. Elsey also says that "Truman demonstrated so forcefully the constitutional authority of president as commander in chief."

Of course, one of the strongest parallels was the albatross of the Korean War, which, as it wore on, became very unpopular.

But it is the precedents set by the "Truman Doctrine' that many attribute to a strong contemporary parallel. At the time, right after World War II, the doctrine called for containment of communism and the United States assuming the role of the world's policeman, Mr. Wolz recalled. In today's world, it is President Bush's containment of terrorism and pre-occupation with taking the battle to the terrorists - overseas.

Although, Mr. Wolz concentrates on history and eschews public hypothecations about parallels with President Bush, he does say, what many feel, that the distance of time - perhaps at least 25 years - will be necessary to fully understand President Bush's legacy.

Of course, those who have steadfastly supported the president are confident that history will reflect well upon the domestic initiatives and foreign policies of President Bush and that we will have security and safety as a result of his approaches to the challenges of our time, to make reflective historical judgments.

Whether President Bush will go down in history as great a president as President Truman will be fodder for discussion and debate many years into the future.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster: E-mail him at:

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