By the time he was showing students around his library in the late '50s, Harry Truman was just another failed president. Communism, corruption and Korea had done him in, to quote the GOP slogan in 1952, and he'd left the White House with poll ratings somewhere down in the 20s. It was left to General Eisenhower, his successor in the White House, to demonstrate that decency could also prove successful politics.
As in 1948, HST would eventually stage a comeback, this time in history's ratings - not that he ever had any doubt he would. Or doubts about much of anything else, including his decision to drop the Bomb on the Japanese. He didn't believe in wasting time on remorse.
Now it was almost half a century later and we were being addressed by a Truman impersonator. He looked the part in his rimless eyeglasses, now back in fashion after half a century. The suit was a 1940ish double-breasted model, but the pointed white handkerchief in the breast pocket was still crisp. When he was leaving the White House, someone asked Harry Truman what he would do when he got back to Missouri. "Unpack," he said.
As a private citizen - a promotion, he would say - Mr. Truman was deluged with corporate offers to head up this or that new company, or at least lend it his name, or maybe start raking in fees for personal appearances. He refused, saying he didn't believe the presidency should be exploited that way. As I said, it was a different time.
The Truman Library was an interesting place even in the '50s, and it has been much improved since. It's well worth a visit. Particularly in contrast to presidential libraries that are newer and still intent on canonizing their subjects. Political passions take a while to ebb.
In contrast with the Clinton presidential library in Little Rock, the more objective presentation of history here refreshes. For example, the arguments for and against dropping the Bomb on Hiroshima - and Nagasaki, too, lest we forget - are neatly and fairly summarized.
An exhibit on the tumultuous beginnings of the Cold War in the Truman administration sums up the Hiss-Chambers Case - our own bitterly divisive Dreyfus Affair - in the fairest terms. The text alongside Alger Hiss' picture is so balanced it's hard to imagine its being written when the debate over Hiss' loyalty still raged:
"Not all the shocks of 1949 and 1950 occurred overseas. In January 1950, the explosive case of Alger Hiss also grabbed headlines. Hiss was a former State Department official accused of spying. In 1948, Whittaker Chambers, a former editor at Time magazine, had told a congressional committee that he and Hiss had once been Soviet agents. Hiss denied the charge, but his case became a national sensation. Because the statute of limitations on espionage had passed, Hiss was tried for perjury. His first trial ended with a hung jury. At a second trial, he was found guilty. The verdict, coming at a time of widened public fears about Communism, fed a growing hysteria about spies and traitors. Controversy over Hiss's conviction finally faded during the 1990s, when strong evidence that he had indeed been a spy emerged from Soviet archives and U.S. Intelligence files."
The passage of time and fading of passions allows a presidential museum to sum up even the most controversial aspects of an administration with even-handed dispatch. Compare the Truman Library's verdict on the Hiss-Chambers affair to the Clinton Library's exhibit on l'affaire Lewinsky. If you can find it.