"I'm just wild about Harry" has become the favorite White House and Republican campaign song. George W. Bush, like Harry S. Truman in the last months of his term, has approval ratings in the 20s. Bush hopes and indeed predicts that his historical reputation will imitate Truman's, which now identifies him as one of the near-great presidents of American history.
Sarah Palin compared herself to Truman in her acceptance speech at the Republican convention: "Long ago, a young farmer and haberdasher from Missouri followed an unlikely path to the vice presidency," she said. "A writer observed: 'We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty, sincerity, and dignity.' I know just the kind of people that writer had in mind when he praised Harry Truman. I grew up with those people," suggesting that she is one of them.
John McCain spoke at the Harry Truman Library in Independence, Mo., on October 1, praising the former president as someone many mistakenly saw as unqualified to lead the nation when he succeeded Franklin Roosevelt in April 1945. The comparison to Sarah Palin was transparent. The little man from Missouri some derisively described in 1944 as the second Missouri compromise was the appropriate predicate to the obscure, untested governor from Alaska.
Nor did McCain shy away from putting in a plug for himself: Truman "succeeded," McCain said, "beyond everyone's expectations—perhaps even his own—because every day, Harry Truman woke up determined to put his country before party and self-interest," as McCain says he has and will.
The rush to embrace Truman tells us more about contemporary politics than about the realities of his career. Unlike Palin, as demonstrated by her interviews, Truman had schooled himself in history and biography. He was the only 20th-century president without a college degree, but he was better educated than most of his predecessors or successors. Moreover, by the time Truman got to the vice presidency in 1944, he was a seasoned politician who had served as the chief judge of Jackson County, which was equivalent to being the mayor of Kansas City, and had served 10 years in the U.S. Senate, where he won prominence as chairman of a subcommittee investigating wartime waste in industrial mobilization. It netted him a Time cover and accolades as one of the country's most accomplished civilian contributors to victory in World War II.
During his presidency, Truman and the Republicans were locked in a series of furious assaults on each other that outraged him and made Truman an enduring foe of a party and its representatives, which he saw as on the wrong side of almost every domestic and foreign policy issue he considered important. He would have admired John McCain's courage and devotion to duty in Vietnam but would have seen his support of unnecessary wars in Southeast Asia and Iraq as akin to the overheated anticommunism of a Richard Nixon and a Douglas MacArthur in the 1950s.
As for George W. Bush, Truman could hardly have imagined him having a post-presidential trajectory similar to the one Truman has enjoyed. Truman wasn't above vindictive feelings toward opponents like Joseph McCarthy, MacArthur, and Nixon, all of whom preached rollback or military defeat of communism when a more patient containment policy impressed Truman as the path to ultimate victory over Soviet communism without a devastating nuclear war.
As Truman said in a farewell speech to the nation on Jan. 15, 1953, "No one can say for sure when [the victory over communism] is going to be, or exactly how it will come about.... Whether the communist rulers shift their policies of their own free will—or whether the change comes about in some other way—I have no doubt in the world that a change will occur."
He was, of course, right. But for President Bush to argue that his policy in Iraq will eventually be a similar compelling event that defeated America's al Qaeda and radical Muslimopponents around the world is an unconvincing stretch.
It seems safe to say that Harry Truman would not have subscribed to Bush's effort to rescue his historical reputation through suggestions that, like Truman, he has pursued wise policies that will eventually be vindicated. Nor would he have looked kindly on McCain's and Palin's use of the Truman memory to win an election. The Bush, McCain, and Palin attempts to wrap themselves in Truman's mantle would have amused and angered him. He would have dismissed their identification with him as nothing more than crude attempts to use him in unconvincing ways to save their political skins. To paraphrase what he said about Nixon and the Constitution, these Republicans may have read about his political career, but they sure as hell didn't understand it.
Robert Dallek's latest book is Harry S. Truman (Times Books).