CBSN

Who's Heir To Truman?

(CBS/AP)
First, "Dewey Defeats Truman," and now this. Who knew that over 50 years after his Presidency, Harry Truman would be a battleground unto himself?

The late David Halberstam – who died in a car accident in April of this year – decided to play referee and clear up the misconceptions over Truman's legacy in his final essay for Vanity Fair.

Back in February, Newsweek magazine took a look at President Bush's fascination with the former president.

An avid reader of history and presidential biographies, President George W. Bush after 9/11 felt a kinship with war leaders, including Britain's Winston Churchill. In the last year or so, as Bush's approval ratings have tumbled and the Iraq quagmire has deepened, the president has increasingly invoked Truman. His aides say that Bush wants to be remembered for creating a new and effective framework for fighting the war on terror, just as Truman did for the cold war.
Then the magazine revisited the Truman Renaissance a few months ago, as the 2008 contenders were trying to carry the mantle of The Truman of Today:
They all want to be Harry Truman. Hillary Clinton invokes his iconic sign (THE BUCK STOPS HERE) to call for better treatment of wounded veterans. Barack Obama reminds us that Truman was one of the first politicians bold enough to call for universal health care….Buffeted by war, unhappy with President Bush, many Americans—Democratic, Republican, independent—seem hungry for a Trumanesque figure, a truth-telling, bare-knuckled president who will give it to us straight. The question now is whether anybody in the 2008 field can measure up.
All this fuss in 2007 about a failed haberdasher who never graduated from college ... God Bless America. And it's into this breach that David Halberstam –who has been researching a book about Truman and the Korean War for years – took a step back and a deep breath and surveyed the landscape in his piece, "The History Boys."
Recently, Harry Truman, for reasons that would surely puzzle him if he were still alive, has become the Republicans' favorite Democratic president. In fact, the men around Bush who attempt to feed the White House line to journalists have begun to talk about the current president as a latter-day Truman: Yes, goes the line, Truman's rise to an ever more elevated status in the presidential pantheon is all ex post facto, conferred by historians long after he left office a beleaguered man, his poll numbers hopelessly low. Thus Bush and the people around him predict that a similar Trumanization will ride to the rescue for them.
He then continues on, discussing as wide-ranging parallels and learning experiences as the Yalta conference in 1945 and the Crimean War, all the way down to the fall of Communism in the 80s. If you haven't read it yet, do so – whether it's to brush up on your military history or just get one last dose of Halberstam's incisive writing style. Even after his passing, Halberstam continues to serve and illuminate American thought.