Who Is Today’s Harry Truman?
Nobody, really, but some come closer than others.


Sixty years ago this weekend, the members of a reluctant 80th Congress trudged back to the capital for a special session called by President Harry S. Truman. The Republican-controlled Congress had adjourned in late June, as was customary in the days before air conditioning became common, but in mid-July Truman summoned them back to steamy Washington, supposedly to pass laws related to civil rights, Social Security, and health care. In the way of country-boy presidents going back to Andrew Jackson, Truman threw in a folksy touch, saying the session would start on “what we in Missouri call ‘Turnip Day.’ ”

As expected, Congress assembled on the specified day, went through the motions for two weeks, and passed no legislation. Still, Truman got what he wanted. For the rest of the campaign, he ceaselessly blamed the “Do-Nothing 80th Congress” for everything that was wrong with the country. The result: Truman was reelected in a shocking upset, and the Democrats regained control of Congress.

In 2008, President Bush is not running for reelection, and for many reasons he is unlikely to pull a Turnip Day–type stunt. Still, hopeful conservatives keep comparing Bush to Truman, whose battered reputation improved enormously after he left office. This comparison began soon after September 11, picked up steam following the Iraq invasion, gained new meaning when that war saw American reverses, and continues to be propounded as the end of Bush’s presidency nears.

The parallels are certainly tempting. During his administration, Truman faced a dangerous and rapidly changing geopolitical scene, saw Congress turn against his party, was returned to office in a very close election, and pursued an increasingly unpopular war against a foe that was supported by a powerful and ambitious neighbor. As he straggled to the end of his second term, his approval ratings were in the 20s; yet by the time of his death in 1972, he had become “Give ’Em Hell Harry,” a folk hero who won admiration even from opponents for his staunch resistance to the spread of Communism. Substitute “Islamic terror” for “Communism,” and you have the neoconservative vision of George W. Bush’s post-presidential trajectory.

While many observers scoff at this scenario, the post-retirement rehabilitation of George W. Bush is virtually certain to occur, and it’s even possible to say when: as soon as we get another Republican president. A few years into that president’s term, commentators will drag out their usual line about how “for all the criticism he took, Bush embodied the true principles of classical conservatism, unlike this loser we’re stuck with now.” It happened with Eisenhower, Ford, Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and even, in some quarters, with Nixon. And unless the press and academia suddenly lose their compulsion to call each new Republican the worst president ever, it is sure to happen with George W. Bush as well.

So in that sense, our current president is, indeed, this generation’s Truman. But Bush is far from the only figure who wants to be heir to the Sage of Independence. How Trumanesque are the rest of this era’s presidents and presidential wannabes?

Bill Clinton
When Truman left the presidency, he was unemployed; politics had been his only job for 30 years. Various companies offered him well-paid sinecures for the use of his name, but he turned them down and got to work writing his memoirs. A few years later, he had to ask Congress for money to pay his living expenses; back then, there was no legal provision to take care of ex-presidents, not even a pension. Contrast this with the Clintons’ $100 million–plus bonanza after Bill left office. Not much of a parallel there.