Policy is Often More Powerful than Popularity

Policy decisions spoke louder than words.

Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon.

Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon.

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Some of America's best presidents had little charisma and, in fact, preferred to be known as workhorses, not show horses—and voters admired them for it.

As vice president for only a few weeks, Harry Truman faced an enormous challenge when he stepped into the presidency after the iconic Franklin D. Roosevelt died in April 1945. But the little-known former senator from Missouri took over with an appealing humility and intense work ethic, surrounding himself with brilliant advisers including Secretary of State George Marshall. He battled Congress for a continuation of FDR's New Deal, stood up to communism in Europe, devised a postwar international security system, and pushed for civil rights. The Korean War torpedoed his popularity, but historians now consider him a great or near-great president.

Serving from 1953 to 1961, Republican Dwight Eisenhower was an erratic speaker and had little interest in public relations. But Americans liked "Ike," the old soldier, and came to admire him for presiding over eight years of peace and prosperity after he ended the Korean War. There were tensions with the Soviet Union and China and social problems at home, but Ike realized that Americans sought normalcy and calm after so many years of the Depression and world war. "It was not too difficult to be the national leader on a policy of doing as little as possible in a time when nobody wanted to do very much," wrote columnist Walter Lippmann.

Richard Nixon's social skills were weak, but he had a brilliant mind for politics and policy, and he deftly exploited the weaknesses of his opponents. He won the presidency in 1968 and re-election in 1972 by recognizing the fears and anxieties of what he called the "silent majority," billing himself as a tough diplomat and an advocate of law and order. He resigned amid the Watergate scandal. But for a man who was so lacking in charisma and who inspired such animosity that his critics nicknamed him "Tricky Dick," he left behind solid achievements, such as opening a historic relationship with Communist China and creating some far-reaching environmental safeguards.