Truman gives Bush hope for a legacy

An unpopular war raging inconclusively overseas. A truculent North Korea defying U.N. resolutions and flaunting its military ambitions. A sharply divided Congress squabbling bitterly over foreign policy. And a beleaguered second-term president in his last two years in office, struggling to keep his administration afloat in the face of anemic approval ratings.

George W. Bush in 2006? Try Harry S. Truman in 1950.


Truman's last two years in the White House were interminable for him, the press, Congress and the nation at large. It's easy to forget that when the curtain came down on his presidency, Truman's poll ratings stood at a meager 31 percent. Only Richard M. Nixon, who resigned with the dark cloud of Watergate hanging over his head, suffered a lower rating, 23 percent. Even Jimmy Carter, whose presidency was held hostage along with 52 Americans in Iran, left with a rating of 34 percent.

And yet Truman may offer President Bush hope. As Truman said, "The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know." Just a few years after leaving the White House, after retreating to his hometown of Independence, Mo., Truman's stock began to rise. The magnitude of his times was appreciated. In a tribute to Truman at the opening of the Truman Library five years after he left the White House, U.S. Chief Justice Earl Warren pointed out that the years in which Truman reigned were "recognized as one of the most momentous periods of our country and the world."


Truman's strength of character was acknowledged, too. He became an elder statesman of sorts, the man who had resolutely given the OK to drop nuclear bombs on Japan to prevent greater death and destruction, stood firm against the Soviets at the dawn of the Cold War, instituted the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe and backed the creation of Israel despite violent uprisings in the Middle East.

Over time, his legacy grew. The portrait that David McCullough offered of Truman in his 1992 biography, 20 years after Truman's death, was a far cry from the man Americans saw 40 years earlier.

If the growing appreciation Truman enjoyed is any indication, Mr. Bush has at least one thing going for him: the indisputable historical significance of the post-9/11 period, offering him the greatest leadership test of his generation. President Bill Clinton was cursed by ruling during relatively placid times, serving as president after the fall of the Iron Curtain and before the fall of the twin towers. Whether history determines that he acted responsibly in the face of the threat from al-Qaida might not matter if his times aren't ruled to have counted much anyway. Mr. Bush will face no such issue.

And like Truman, Mr. Bush may have another thing going for him: the bold decisions he made without hand-wringing and focus-group measuring. Afghanistan had been "the graveyard of empires" before the U.S. led coalition forces over the border and drove out the Taliban. But it is his decision to invade and occupy Iraq - overthrowing its malevolent dictator in the hopes of democratizing the country and having a transformative effect on the Middle East - on which his historical legacy hinges, particularly because he did so without direct provocation.

One of the hallmarks of Mr. Bush's presidency has been his patience. Despite the din of criticism, he has "stayed the course" in Iraq, convinced that he would be vindicated in time as rampant factional resistance gives way to law, order and stability. As Thomas Jefferson wrote upon violating his own political principles (and testing constitutional bounds) by making the Louisiana Purchase as president, "It is incumbent on those who accept great charges to risk themselves on great occasions."

Mr. Bush has shown the unwavering resolve for which great leaders are often celebrated - if they are ultimately proved to be right.

If that is the case, history may celebrate Mr. Bush, and, as distant as the hope seems now, he may be awarded a place in the presidential pantheon along with Harry S. Truman or Thomas Jefferson. If not, it will surely condemn him for his lack of judgment.

Mark K. Updegrove is author of "Second Acts: Presidential Lives and Legacies After the White House." His e-mail is