“Is there anything I can do for you?” he asked after registering her words.
“Is there anything we can do for you?” the first lady replied. “For you are the one in trouble now.”
Historian David McCullough notes that many Americans sensed a disturbing echo that day. A great wartime president had died suddenly — just short of the victory for which he had worked so long — and it was April again, when lilacs in the dooryards bloom. Naturally, they thought of Abraham Lincoln. Meanwhile, the new president, Harry S. Truman, was a middling farmer and failed businessman who completed only high school. So people fretted over the omen of Lincoln’s failed successor, the common Tennessee tailor Andrew Johnson.
“What a great, great tragedy. God help us all,” wrote David Lilienthal, head of the Tennessee Valley Authority, in his journal. “The country and the world don’t deserve to be left this way.” Winston Churchill later admitted to Truman: “I loathed your taking the place of Franklin Roosevelt.”
Then Churchill added, in words that might have drawn a nod from Lilienthal, from Gen. George C. Marshall or from any number of early skeptics who came to admire the man who built a world safe for democracy: “I misjudged you badly. Since that time, you more than any other man, have saved Western civilization.”
Where do leaders come from? It’s a recurring American question, because we’re a sprawling land with many upward paths. Consider the monotony of British prime ministers. More than half — 28 out of 55 — have been products of the same university, Oxford, with 14 others from Cambridge. Three-fifths — 33 out of 55 — received their high school educations at Eton, Harrow or Westminster.
Now compare Roosevelt and Truman, hailing, it seems, from different planets. Roosevelt was a New York aristocrat whose forebears owned a chunk of an island called Manhattan, land on which the Empire State Building rose. Reared in mansions, educated at Groton and Harvard, Roosevelt married a favorite niece of a U.S. president, who gave her away at the altar. And here was Truman, a Missouri farm boy, schooled mainly by the stacks of a small-town library. He moved into the White House having never even owned his own home. Mrs. Roosevelt required 20 trucks to vacate the premises; the Truman family just one to move in their belongings.
What the men shared was politics. It’s a dirty word today, as we look for leaders on social media and reality television. Politics isn’t perfect; it smells of swamps and tycoons, elites and establishments, corruption and compromise. Roosevelt and Truman had both inhaled these odors on the way up (for human nature never loses its distinctive scents). They navigated a world dominated by urban political bosses, teaching them that special interests, inside traders, patronage hunters, double-dealers, hypocrites, weaklings and bullies all feature regularly in the public’s business. A leader says no to most but yes to some — enough to make measurable progress for the community.
Politics taught, above all, accountability. Bosses and their candidates made promises before Election Day, then tried to keep enough to be reelected. They sought and embraced responsibility, whether it was Roosevelt saying, during his first inaugural address, that he would shoulder extraordinary risks to confront the Great Depression, or Truman promising that all the world’s buck-passing would end at his desk. Responsibility created a record; a record made for a future.
Not everyone knew it on that stunning April day, but Truman’s leadership had been tested repeatedly during the decades before “the moon, the stars, and all the planets” fell on him, as the new president described his sudden responsibilities. His entry to politics had come thanks to his performance as a captain in World War I; an admiring junior officer was the nephew of the Kansas City boss. Truman’s record of delivering roads on time and below budget boosted him to the Senate. His case to be vice president was helped by his senatorial reputation as the scourge of war profiteers.
Full disclosure: I am a volunteer board member of the foundation that supports Truman’s presidential library. I concur with history’s high opinion of him. But marking this date when his record was yet to be written, I emphasize his pragmatic preparation. Look around: The world is reminding us that politics have consequences and results genuinely matter. A nation run by people without records, who take no responsibility, who claim to be better than politics, is destined to be in a world of trouble.
Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.