Is regarded as the people's president. But in...

HARRY TRUMAN

August 06, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

HARRY TRUMAN is regarded as the people's president. But in fact, he's only the eggheads' president.

Judged by measured public opinion, Truman was the second most unpopular president in the history of the Gallup Poll. Only Richard Nixon, who was almost impeached and had to resign the presidency in shame, was held in lower esteem by the public. And he was only slightly lower than Truman.

Gallup keeps what it calls "presidential performance ratings." These are polls taken regularly in which citizens are asked if they approve of the way a president is doing his job.

At the end of every presidency, Gallup adds up all the polls, averages them and gets a career rating.

Truman was the first president whose entire occupancy of the White House was covered. His first term average was 54 percent approval. That compares to these subsequent first term percentages: Dwight Eisenhower, 69; John F. Kennedy, 71; Lyndon B. Johnson, 75; Richard Nixon, 56; Gerald Ford 47; Jimmy Carter, 47; Ronald Reagan, 50.

In their second terms, the averages were: Truman, 37; Ike, 61; LBJ, 52; Nixon, 35; Reagan, 56. (Ford and Carter ran and lost. JFK was killed.)

So the American people came to regret that 1948 victory they gave Truman. His average popularity in his second term masks just how much they regretted it. In May, 1951, his approval rating had sunk to 24 percent and hovered there till he announced he would not run again in 1952.

But the thinking elite -- ah, that's different. In 1962, nine years after Truman left office, a poll of 58 historians and 27 political scientists and journalists ranked Truman 8th among all presidents. A 1977 poll of 100 heads of history departments put him at 8th. Two polls with smaller samples in 1981 and 1982 also listed HST as 8th.

No president who came after Truman rated higher in these polls.

Then in 1982 the Presidential Performance Study asked all Ph.D.-holding professors of American history to rate the presidents and their accomplishments and failures in detail. About half -- 970 -- responded. In this, the best and perhaps only good such study ever undertaken, Harry came in 8th again. Ike, LBJ and JFK came in 10th, 11th and 13th, respectively. Ford came in 24th. Carter came in 25th. Nixon came in 34th. Only Grant and Harding were below him.

Clearly the people and the professors are on different wavelengths. A Truman-Eisenhower race in 1952 would have been a landslide repudiation of HST.

So what else is new? There's always been a gulf between Average Joe and the academics.

In 1989, Ronald Reagan left office with the highest Gallup job performance approval rating of any president ever -- including Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1991, 500 of the profs in the Presidential Performance Study were re-polled. They rated Reagan 28th.

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