They both gave hell and got hell.
As presidents, George W. Bush and Harry S. Truman had a lot in common.
Both were skeptical of elites and the media, driven by their faith, had troubled presidencies, made momentous and difficult decisions, took the nation into war, were unpopular in their time and weren’t concerned about it. They deeply believed if they did the right thing, history would sort things out in the end.
This week marks the 65th anniversary of Truman’s inaugural, it’s an appropriate time to remark on his historical evolution and reflect on the similarities between the two presidencies.
There are some early indicators that Bush’s resurrection may well be under way. The media, notoriously tough on him, have already started turning their coverage around.
Truman holds the dubious distinction of achieving the lowest in-office job approval of 22 percent, edging out Nixon at 24 percent and Bush at 25 percent.
And yet, time and history have been kind to Truman. In the 2009 C-Span Historians Presidential Leadership Survey, the top four slots go to, no surprise: Lincoln, Washington, Franklin Roosevelt and Teddy Roosevelt. And No. 5? Truman. Today George W. Bush sits at 36, while his father comes in at 18.
• Peter Beinart: The Nuke Summit Is Boring Will time be as kind to Bush? There are some early indicators that his resurrection may well be under way. The media, notoriously tough on Bush, have already started turning their coverage around. Newsweek recently ran a cover story on Iraq headlined “Mission Accomplished.” And 60 Minutes, which arguably tried to take down the Bush presidency with Dan Rather’s bogus National Guard story, broadcast an Easter Sunday segment praising Bush for his implementation of HIV/AIDS treatment programs in Africa that are now credited for saving millions of lives across that continent.
It’s too early to tell how Bush will be judged 50 years from today and whether he’ll fare as well as Truman. But consider the following observations about Truman from noted historians and how they easily they could be applied to Bush (all citations are from David McCullough’s Truman, except where otherwise noted):
He presented himself as a common-sense country boy...
...reputation of an intellectual lightweight…
Truman was often called a simple man, which he was not.
He made no pretense at being superior in any regard. He did not seem to need the limelight, flattery, or a following.
He was at his best with small groups, close up and entirely himself, yet keenly aware of the meaning of the occasion.
Churchill said, “...he is a man of immense determination... He takes no notice of delicate ground, he just plants his foot down firmly upon it.”
His whole life Truman had been moved primarily by faith... “I have a deep and abiding faith in the destiny of free men.”
In just three months in office, Harry Truman had been faced with a greater surge of history, with larger, more difficult, more far-reaching decisions than any president before him.
...unparalleled power and responsibility had been thrust upon him at one of history’s greatest turning points...
[On the Korean War] The war Truman had never wanted or expected, but knew to be of utmost importance to the future of the world—the most important decision of his presidency, he believed—had come to overshadow his whole second term.
The decision to go into Korea, he said, was the most important of his time in office... His intent in Korea, he now said, was to prevent World War III.
It was a dark period for Harry Truman, a winter of tawdry scandal, of interminable war in Korea and greatly diminished public confidence in his leadership...
[Mid-term elections] The opposing party swept the election, carrying both houses of Congress for the first time since before the Depression...
“The shrill pitch of abuse heaped upon the president continues to echo,” wrote Time.
Finally, regarding America’s role in the world, Truman and Bush sound eerily similar.
President Truman in 1948:
“The only expansion we are interested in is the expansion of human freedom and the wider enjoyment of the good things of the earth in all countries... The only prize we covet is the respect and good will of our fellow members of the family of nations.”
President Bush in 2002:
“Our nation's cause has always been larger than our nation's defense. We fight, as we always fight, for a just peace—a peace that favors human liberty. We will defend the peace against threats from terrorists and tyrants. We will preserve the peace by building good relations among the great powers. And we will extend the peace by encouraging free and open societies on every continent. Building this just peace is America's opportunity, and America's duty... America has no empire to extend or utopia to establish. We wish for others only what we wish for ourselves— safety from violence, the rewards of liberty, and the hope for a better life.
Truman and Bush. The similarities are striking. The question is: Will history judge Bush like Truman?
With his ability to “take it,” his inner iron, his bedrock faith in the democratic process, his trust in the American people, and his belief that history was the final, all-important judge of performance, he was truly exceptional. He never had a doubt about who he was, and that too was part of his strength...
Noted historian Doug Brinkley perhaps best sums up the pair: Both Truman and Bush were avatars of direct action. Neither cared much about public opinion polls or pulse-reading. At their best, they were decisive mavericks. At their worst, too-fast-of-draws.
(Research assistance provided by Anna Marie Thompson)
As vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, corporations and causes, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Governor Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono.
Myra Adams is a media producer, writer and political observer. Her media clients have included national associations, political interest groups and corporations. She was on the creative team with Mark McKinnon that created the now infamous John Kerry "Windsurfing" ad for the Bush 2004 presidential campaign and served on the McCain Ad Council during the 2008 McCain campaign. Myra's Web site www.TheJesusStore.com contributes all profits to Christian charity.