Paul Greenberg

INDEPENDENCE, Mo. - The last time I'd toured the Truman Library, as a young graduate student in history at the University of Missouri, the guide was the library's namesake. Always dapper - after all, he'd been a haberdasher in another failed career - Harry Truman was, well, Trumanesque. He was crisp as the white, pointed handkerchief in the breast pocket of his single-breasted dark blue suit.

With his natty bow tie and eyeglasses always in place, he could have stepped out of a political cartoon. He was folksy without being folksy, his style no-style, but just plain Missouri show-me. His manner might have been practiced, his best lines well rehearsed, but the whole effect seemed natural to the man and the place - right here. Independence.

While aware of the impression he was leaving - he was, after all, a politician of some note - the man had no airs, certainly not intellectual ones. He'd been there, done that, and didn't need to philosophize about it. He was an earnest student of history - the old-fashioned kind with heroes and villains, right and wrong. None of this Toynbeean murk for him. He knew what he knew, the rest he would learn - if he thought it worth learning.

Mr. Truman never did have much patience with the pretentious. At a particularly low point in his presidency, his party having just lost the midterm elections, a distinguished senator from Arkansas on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee suggested that he resign the presidency in the best British tradition. Much like a prime minister leaving office after a vote of no confidence.

Harry Truman didn't think much of that idea. And as for the senator who'd come up with it, he dismissed the Hon. J. William Fulbright as someone who'd been "educated above his intelligence." And that was one of his milder descriptions of the gentleman from Arkansas.

About the only feature I remember from my earlier visit to the Truman Library was a huge Persian carpet that had been suspended from the balcony. We'd pass it more than once during our brief tour, and each time Mr. Truman would say, "Yeah, that's a rug the Shah of Iran gave me."

The rug isn't there any more. The shah is out of fashion and the rug is no longer in sight. Political correctness must have overtaken even this monument to Give 'Em Hell Harry. A captain of artillery during the First World War, he may have acquired a certain familiarity with the stock profanities, but the elementary decency of the man shone through. He tended to rise above his surroundings. Maybe that's how he could be in Kansas City's old Pendergast machine but not of it.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.