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Eight Days With Harry Truman
The elder statesman sets the record straight on JFK, LBJ, Stalin, the bomb, Charles de Gaulle, Douglas MacArthur—and, most of all, the American Presidency
July/August 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 4
Harry Truman clearly liked Johnson. He regretted being forced to pass such a judgment on him, even in private. But in the cold-eyed world of former Presidents, he had failed a crucial test. He had damaged the Presidency.
Truman had only one epitaph for his fellow Democrat: “No guts!”
Now we came to a really tough question. I asked Truman what he thought of President Nixon. His eyes flashed fire. “He called me a Communist, you know.”
I said I knew that. There was another long silence. Suddenly a sly grin crept across the lined face. Truman was no longer thinking of Richard Nixon, the Republican party’s hatchet man for almost two decades. He was thinking about the Nixon who had been in the White House more than two years. “Every so often the fellow hits a boomer,” he said. “And no one gives him any credit for it!”
Here, even more than in Lyndon Johnson’s case, was proof of the power of the presidential club. Within its select confines, even antipathy as deep as that which Harry Truman felt for Richard Nixon became irrelevant. What counted was performance.
Truman didn’t live to see the damage Nixon did the Presidency in the Watergate scandal. But he was already deeply concerned by the turmoil that was wracking the country, and one night, venting a pessimism he never voiced publicly, he said: “I’m glad I’m not my grandchildren. The problems they are going to face in this country are far worse than anything I saw at their age.”
On our fifth or sixth day in Independence, General de Gaulle died. When Margaret heard the news, she called me at my motel and suggested it might be best to skip the general as a topic at lunch the following day. “This means Dad’s the last of the World War II leaders, and Mother and I are a little worried about how that might affect him,” she said. I naturally agreed to say nothing.
The next day we arrived for lunch and sat down for an accustomed drink in the library. On a folding table in front of Truman’s chair lay the day’s papers, which had huge headlines about de Gaulle’s demise. The previous night Truman had spoken with animation about the foreign statesman he most admired, Winston Churchill. But today he seemed somewhat subdued; I began to think de Gaulle’s death was indeed troubling him.
Mrs. Truman finished her drink and went out to the kitchen to find out about lunch. Margaret followed her, asking if there was anything she could do to help. Truman and I were alone. His eyes immediately went to the headlines. As if he were continuing our conversation of the previous night, he said, “As for that son of a bitch, someone should have shot him twenty years ago!”
Like Gen. Douglas MacArthur, de Gaulle was guilty of what Truman called “grandstanding.” Again, the emotion was linked to the Presidency. Truman believed no political or military leader should identify himself with his office.
“Whenever I acted as President Truman,” he told me one night, “I expected to be treated with respect—not because Harry Truman deserved it but because the Presidency deserved it.”
When I saw Truman in 1970, he and his Presidency were in a sort of historical limbo. Little had been written about him in more than a decade, and in academe many were blaming him for starting the Cold War.
Today, with communism in collapse all over the world, it is far more evident that the policy of containment Truman initiated against the Soviet empire was the most potent political decision of the last fifty years. The thriving free economies of Europe and Asia are the products of his devotion to freedom and democracy.
On our last day together Truman summed up his Presidency. “When I was on the campaign trail in 1948, I saw a tombstone in Arizona that read: ‘Here lies Joe Doakes. He done his damnedest.’ That was the way I did the job. I’m going to let the historians decide how I came out.”