EIGHTY-EIGHT years ago, another president who was defeated for reelection refused to ease the transition of his successor. Herbert Hoover, a world figure renowned for his work combating hunger during World War I, had been brought low in the election by a worldwide Depression, and he lacked respect for the man who had defeated him, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Twelve years later, there was a new president in office, Harry S. Truman, and he needed help. One of the people he called was Hoover. As Truman remembered it in an interview for Merle Miller’s book Plain Speaking,” “Hoover was flabbergasted. He said ‘Mr. President, I don’t know what to say.’ ’’

After greeting Hoover in the Oval Office, Truman recalls, “I said to him, ‘Mr. President, there are a lot of hungry people in the world, and if there’s anybody who knows about hungry people, it’s you. Now there’s plenty of food, but it’s not in the right places. Now I want you to—’

“Well, I looked at him. He was sitting there . . . and I saw that great big tears were running down his cheeks. I knew what was the matter with him. It was the first time in 13 years that anybody had paid any attention to him.”

Truman offered the assignment and Hoover took it on — and later headed up a national commission on government reorganization — because both men knew what was expected of a president of the United States, and they behaved accordingly.

Truman was an accidental president, of course, elevated by FDR’s death. He lacked a college degree, but like his predecessor Abraham Lincoln, he read a lot — every book in the Independence, Mo., library, by his account. These days, America’s recently departed and twice-impeached president is still sometimes labeled a “populist,” but in truth, Truman was our last president to deserve that adjective in its most admirable sense. He sought to continue what he saw as the best of the New Deal while respecting the institutions of government and preaching a gospel of accountability: “The buck stops here.”

As a captain of artillery in France more than a century ago, he earned a reputation for diligence, fairness and attention to the needs of those under his command.

As president, he made sure others got credit for his administration’s achievements, such as the Marshall Plan. He worked to advance civil rights (ending the disgraceful segregation of the military, among other things) and weathered a series of crises, foreign and domestic, that would have challenged any president to the utmost.

Truman retired to Independence without much money, having turned down some lucrative corporate offers because he didn’t think it right to trade on his status as a former president. He had a lot to say in his later years, some of it pretty salty, and he offered us all a thought that is as relevant today as ever — especially in the Senate chamber, where Truman once served. Discussing his encounters with Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and those who failed to act against him, he warned:

“Now that’s where the real danger comes; it isn’t only the demagogues. It’s the ones who encourage them, who’ll do anything in the world to win an election. They’re just as bad.”

Read more: