Of Stevensville writes, "Not a week goes by...

CHAS. G. DUNN

March 22, 1993|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

CHAS. G. DUNN of Stevensville writes, "Not a week goes by that someone in the media raves about the greatness of Harry Truman.

"But at the end of his term in 1952 he returned to Missouri with a presidential rating somewhere between average and poor. What has brought about what I call a complete about face? Perhaps you can explain it or at least have an opinion."

Chas., in the words of the lyricist, who can explain it, who can tell you why? Fools give you reasons, wise men never try. I'll try, but first, let's review the facts.

Truman was indeed considered well below average in 1952 and is rated well above average now. The last Gallup Poll verdict on his presidency, conducted in October 1952, one month before the election that ended 20 years of Democratic control of the White House, showed that only 32 percent of Americans approved of his performance as president.

This was six months after he had announced he would not seek re-election. At that time he had even worse poll numbers. Gallup found only 25 percent approval.

In the election itself, Truman's choice to replace him in the White House, Adlai Stevenson, lost to Republican Dwight Eisenhower by 44 to 55 percent. Truman would have done even worse had he been the candidate. A poll of Democratic county chairmen that year showed that by a whopping 80-15 percent, the pols believe Truman's withdrawal helped the party.

But 30 years later a poll of nearly 1,000 professors rated Truman as the eighth best president ever, in a category the compilers of the poll called "Near Great."

One explanation for that startling reversal of fortune was that the passage of time had proved Truman's unpopular decisions had turned out to be the right ones. As memoirs and official documents became available, history could render its verdict.

Or so it was said. I don't buy that. Only 10 years after 1952, another, smaller poll of historians also ranked Truman "Near Great." This was long before the verdict of history argument could be made.

Okay, Chas., here's the reason. Truman's reputation is now (as in 1962) determined by elites, not the ordinary people. In 1952 the pulse of the public is what was taken. Today few people remember Truman, so "public opinion" is really "academic and journalistic opinion." And, Chas., it's well known that most of us are Left Democrats.

Truman was popular with the people when it counted. Popular enough, anyway. That was in 1948, when he ran for the presidency. He had assumed the job in 1945, when Franklin D. Roosevelt died.

Ten days before Election Day, Republican Thomas E. Dewey led Truman by 5 percentage points in the Gallup Poll. But on election day, Truman won by 4. He didn't get 50 percent (voters were just mild about Harry), but he got more than Tom, and he won handily.

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