Truman's Trials Resonate for Bush

Gen. Douglas MacArthur met with President Harry S. Truman in 1950 as the Korean War began. President Bush has compared Truman's situation, at the start of the Cold War, to the current fight against terrorism.
Gen. Douglas MacArthur met with President Harry S. Truman in 1950 as the Korean War began. President Bush has compared Truman's situation, at the start of the Cold War, to the current fight against terrorism. (Associated Press)
By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 15, 2006

He led the United States into war and saw his popularity plummet, yet some 60 years later his reputation has never been higher: It's small wonder Harry S. Truman seems to hold a special fascination for President Bush these days.

That interest came into focus recently after Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) went public with an account of a meeting last Friday in which he said the president seemed to be comparing his situation to that of Truman in the late 1940s. According to Durbin's account and another source familiar with the meeting, Bush told the gathering of congressional leaders that Truman's approach to dealing with the Cold War was not initially popular but that he was vindicated by history -- the implication being that Bush would be vindicated about Iraq as well.

White House aides later disputed this reading of Bush's comments, but the episode may offer a glimpse into the psychology of a president who, like Truman in his second term, seems beset by trouble and pressures on all sides and who is ready to look to history for some comfort and guidance.

"Everyone loves a winner, and history reflects Harry Truman was a winner," said Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), whose father was a longtime friend of the late president and who met Truman as a young man. "It is all familiar front-yard psychology -- associate yourself with a winner."

By many accounts, Bush is fascinated by history and biography -- he reads extensively and meets periodically with presidential scholars -- and Truman has certainly seemed to be on his mind in recent months. In his commencement address this year at West Point, Bush discussed Truman at some length, lauding his early role in structuring U.S. forces and institutions for the Cold War.

That speech was followed by repeated references to the Democratic 33rd president during the fall campaign, usually as part of cutting attacks on the party of Truman, which Bush said had become the "party of cut and run" in Iraq. In the 2004 presidential campaign, Bush also mentioned Truman repeatedly, often to praise his role in helping reconstruct Japan after World War II.

By coincidence, say White House aides, one of 10 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom today will be David McCullough, whose 1992 biography of Truman did much to restore the luster of his presidency among the public. In a brief telephone interview this week from his home in Maine, McCullough described himself as "more honored" than he has ever been by the award, the highest civilian honor bestowed by the government, and he noted that the medal was created by Truman in 1945.

"I know that President Bush admires Harry Truman -- we have talked about that," McCullough said, though he was cautious about offering any snap assessments of the Bush presidency. "About 50 years has to go by before you can appraise a presidency -- the dust has to settle."

He did say he sees similarities between Truman and Bush, especially in their capacity to endure "merciless criticism and personal abuse" that he doubts "many of us could take."

Perhaps mindful that Bush-Truman comparisons would draw ridicule from Democrats -- the idea is already the subject of derision in the liberal blogosphere -- White House aides were careful to emphasize that the iconic liberal is only one of a number of inspirations for the president. "People do think about the Truman presidency -- but not only the Truman presidency," said one senior White House official, who was not authorized to speak publicly. "It is not as though it's a talisman or lighthouse for any of us."

The official and several other senior administration officials speak mainly about Truman's role in key events of the traumatic early days of the Cold War, including the Berlin Airlift, the passage of the Marshall Plan and defense of South Korea.

Bush has described the struggle against Islamic terrorism in generational terms, and the implication from his aides is that he is setting up structures and strategy to win this long war, even if, as with Truman, some of the particular actions are unpopular.

"By the actions he took, the institutions he built, the alliances he forged and the doctrines he set down, President Truman laid the foundations for America's victory in the Cold War," Bush told the graduating cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in May.

Democrats at last week's meeting seemed surprised by Bush's comments about Truman, but White House press secretary Tony Snow said Bush was making a point that as during Truman's presidency, the United States today faces an "ideological enemy with a global ambition . . . that we were going to have to figure out how to face over an extended period of time."

"I think it's important to note that the president was really not trying to compare himself to Harry Truman so much as to talk about the duration and nature of the struggle," Snow said.

Historians are divided about this kind of assessment from the administration. Fred I. Greenstein, a Princeton scholar regarded as a preeminent authority on the presidency, alluded to one major difference between Bush and Truman, often cited by Democrats. "The Marshall Plan was part of a broad-based diplomatic effort, and it was enacted by Truman's bipartisan leadership of a Republican Congress," he said in an e-mail. "Bush's efforts have been heavily unilateral internationally and divisive internally, except those just after 9/11."

James G. Hershberg, a Cold War historian at George Washington University, said he doubts that history will judge Bush as kindly as it has Truman, saying Truman's roles in fostering European recovery and building the NATO alliance were seen as solid accomplishments at the time. "Bush, by contrast, lacks any successes of comparable magnitude to compensate for his mismanagement of the Iraq war and will be hard-pressed to produce any in his last two years," he said.

But Greenstein said he has been struck by parallels between the two presidents, including their feistiness, the fact that neither seemed up to the job in their early months in office, that both had responses to crises that made them seem more presidential and that both saw their approval levels drop after stalemated wars. "As one who remembers the Truman presidency," he said, "I often have a sense of deja vu."

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