Truman Li­brary spruces up to match pres­i­dent’s legacy

The Saline Courier - - OPINION - DAVID SHRIBMAN NA­TIONAL PER­SPEC­TIVE David M. Shribman is the for­mer ex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor of the Pitts­burgh Postgazett­e. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at Shrib­manpg.

Who to­day thinks about Harry Truman? A lot of peo­ple, it turns out, and that is one rea­son why the Truman Pres­i­den­tial Li­brary and Mu­seum is clos­ing next week. That may sound like the kind of rid­dle that was prom­i­nent in this re­gion dur­ing the Truman years. Here’s one from 1947:

I walked out be­side a head,

I seen the liv­ing and the dead,

Some stood and some fled.

We will re­ward you for finishing this col­umn by pro­vid­ing the rid­dle’s an­swer. But the an­swer to the mys­tery of the shut­ter­ing of the pres­i­den­tial li­brary here is that the 33rd pres­i­dent is so pop­u­lar to­day that the cu­ra­tors and ar­chiv­ists need more space, and an en­large­ment and a spruc­ing up of the struc­ture that matches Truman’s his­tor­i­cal record will take a year.

Ac­tu­ally the re-eval­u­a­tion of the pres­i­dency of Harry Truman, who left of­fice with his­tory’s low­est approval rat­ings, has been go­ing on for years -- and has ac­cel­er­ated re­cently.

“You can’t con­sider any con­tem­po­rary is­sue with­out seeing that Truman was in­volved in it

-- Korea, NATO, civil rights,” said Dr.

Kurt Gra­ham, the li­brary’s di­rec­tor.

“But we are also in a time with an ab­sence of lead­er­ship -- and here was a guy who formed friend­ships and made al­liances even though he was a par­ti­san. It’s a great legacy, and it speaks to a time and condition we just don’t have any­more.”

Truman, of course, was an ac­ci­dent of his­tory but, in ret­ro­spect if not in real time, a happy ac­ci­dent. He as­cended to the White House af­ter a calamity that jolted the world, the death of wartime Pres­i­dent Franklin De­lano Roo­sevelt. Amer­i­cans asked at FDR’S death, in the ar­got of the time, a dis­turb­ing ques­tion: Can he swing this job? Truman him­self wasn’t sure. On April 13, 1945, a day af­ter Roo­sevelt’s death, the new pres­i­dent be­seeched the cap­i­tal press:

“Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don’t know whether you fel­lows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me yesterday what had hap­pened, I felt like the stars and all the plan­ets had fallen on me.”

He wasn’t the only one who felt that way. The last pres­i­dent with­out a col­lege de­gree and a po­lit­i­cal fig­ure tied to a prim­i­tive but pow­er­ful lo­cal ma­chine, Truman was a for­mer senator whose vice pres­i­dency was per­haps the most iso­lated of the 20th cen­tury. He and the pres­i­dent had con­ferred only a hand­ful of times. He was un­aware of the Man­hat­tan Project that at that mo­ment was de­vel­op­ing the atomic bomb, and it wasn’t un­til a dozen days into his pres­i­dency that Sec­re­tary of War Henry L. Stim­son gave him a com­pre­hen­sive brief­ing on the weapon whose use would define his pres­i­dency and for­ever trans­form global pol­i­tics.

But there was un­seen depth to Truman, and he pos­sessed an un­usual but in­dis­pens­able prepa­ra­tion for the task, in part here in the Kansas City area and in part dur­ing World War I.

“In the Great War, the civil­ian Harry Truman, the bank clerk and fu­ture hab­er­dasher, proved him­self a leader, was pro­moted, was com­mended, went overseas, was shot at, and held com­mand of a body of men un­der fire,” the late Univer­sity of Vir­ginia his­to­rian Wil­liam Lee Miller wrote in 2012.

The Miller assessment was by no means the first trum­pet blast in the re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of the rep­u­ta­tion of Truman, who had been af­fec­tion­ately cel­e­brated in a 1973 oral bi­og­ra­phy by Merle Miller called “Plain Speaking.” Then, two years later, James Whit­more be­gan tour­ing with a one-man show about Truman called “Give ‘Em Hell, Harry.”

(Later, Clifton Daniel Truman, born four years af­ter the pres­i­dent left the White House, would play his grand­fa­ther in a re­vival of the pro­duc­tion.)

But the big Truman-rep­u­ta­tion break­through came in 1992, with the pub­li­ca­tion of David Mc­cul­lough’s block­buster bi­og­ra­phy, win­ner of the Pulitzer Prize. Mc­cul­lough por­trayed Truman as “the kind of pres­i­dent the found­ing fathers had in mind for the coun­try.” In cel­e­brat­ing what he de­scribed as “his inner iron, his bedrock faith in the demo­cratic process, his trust in the Amer­i­can peo­ple, and his be­lief that his­tory was the fi­nal, al­limpor­tant judge of per­for­mance,” Mc­cul­lough not only dis­cov­ered new virtues in Truman but also shone new light on his pres­i­dency.

“I feel very strongly in giv­ing credit where credit is due,” Mc­cul­lough said in an in­ter­view, “par­tic­u­larly when credit is long over­due.”

The ren­o­va­tion of the Truman li­brary, which un­til it closed didn’t have the verve of the pres­i­dent it cel­e­brated, is long over­due. In­deed, so un­invit­ing were its dark halls that a vis­i­tor might have been tempted to walk through it at the mil­i­tary pace of 120 steps a minute, which Truman him­self fa­vored in the

White House and in his retirement here at 219 Delaware Av­enue af­ter his pres­i­dency.

The new look -- a phrase Truman’s suc­ces­sor, Dwight Eisen­hower, em­ployed to de­scribe his na­tional-se­cu­rity pol­icy -- will give fresh promi­nence to Truman’s early life, his courtship of Bess Wallace, and the sig­na­ture events of the era: the Korean War, the dis­pute with Gen. Douglas Macarthur, the de­seg­re­ga­tion of the mil­i­tary, the Mar­shall Plan, the Ber­lin Air­lift, the Truman Doc­trine.

Above all, it will re­deem what Sen. Ad­lai E. Steven­son III of Illi­nois said was the les­son of Truman’s life, which he de­scribed as “an ob­ject les­son in the vi­tal­ity of pop­u­lar government; an ex­am­ple of the abil­ity of this so­ci­ety to yield up, from the most re­mark­able ori­gins, the most re­mark­able men.”

When the li­brary re­opens, the coun­try will be in the throes of its next pres­i­den­tial elec­tion -- what Truman char­ac­ter­ized as “a great event in the life of a free peo­ple [that] gives them a chance to de­cide their own na­tional destiny.”

Truman, his pres­i­dency and the 1948 elec­tion that the Chicago Tri­bune mis­re­ported in its fa­mous DEWEY DE­FEATS TRUMAN head­line were them­selves a rid­dle. But Truman and the Amer­i­can peo­ple an­swered that rid­dle, with aplomb and with a sense of na­tional pur­pose.

This col­umn opened with an Ozark rid­dle. The an­swer: a live wasp in the head of a dead horse. Come to think of it, Truman was a live wasp. The dead head be­longed to my colum­nist fore­bears who be­lieved, ev­ery one of them, that the pres­i­dent’s re-elec­tion cam­paign was doomed. That wasp re­mains alive, buzzing around our pol­i­tics even to­day.

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