For a quarter of a century, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has been my Trobriand Islands. In the dying months of the presidency of Richard Milhous Nixon, I entered in a near total immersion in the sources of evidence on the occupants of the modem Oval Office. I had just published a rather abstract work on the links between politics and the psyche, and I was casting about for flesh-and-blood subject matter for my next book.
I found it in the televised psychodrama of the Nixon impeachment hearings. Here was a political leader whose skill and vision had enabled him to transform his nation's relations with China and the Soviet Union for the better, but was in the process of succumbing to apolitical disaster of his own making. Rather than only study the politically gifted, emotionally deficient Richard Nixon, I decided to focus my attention on all of the chief executives of the period since the presidency became the engine force of the American political system in the time of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
From 1974 to 1999, the eleven presidents from FDR to Bill Clinton have been my obsession. I have pored over the published and unpublished sources on them, interviewed their associates, and had brief, but informative, contacts with Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George Bush, and Bill Clinton. Many years earlier, I had had a picturesque encounter with Harry Truman. At the point that I was consigning my book to the publisher, it dawned on me that it also had been informed by a further source: a lifetime of political memories.
As a child of the Depression, I first became aware of the wider world at a time when FDR was as much a part of the atmosphere as the weather and the changing seasons. His compelling features were omnipresent in the newsreels and photographs and portraits. His endlessly imitated speaking voice was as much an audible presence as those of Amos and Andy and Jack Benny.
Three recollections stand out. In the first I am a six-year-old wresting an Alf Landon campaign button from the shirt of a playmate during the 1936 presidential campaign, and his mother is swooping down on me in retribution. In the second my family is solemnly listening to Roosevelt's address to Congress following Pearl Harbor and accepting as an unquestioned verity his avowal that "the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory." In the third I am sprawled on my bed with my homework spread on the floor and the radio playing in the background. An announcer breaks in with word of Roosevelt's death. I dropped my pen, leaving a permanent ink stain on the floor--a continuing reminder that the man I had thought of as "the president" was no longer on the scene, and the nation would now be led by fallible mortals.
My earliest mental snapshot of FDR's highly fallible successor is from late in 1945. Again, the radio was playing. President Truman was addressing the nation on the problems of post-war reconversion. His flat Missouri twang and halting delivery could not have been in sharper contrast to the rich sonorities of FDR. My father's comment was that the new man in the White House was doing his best, but his best was none too good.
The next image is from the night of the 1948 election. I was on an Antioch College work-study assignment at one of the few big city newspapers that had endorsed Truman--the Chicago Sun-Times. Stacked in a corner of the city room were copies of the first edition of the Chicago Tribune with its headline of "Dewey Beats Truman." Despite the Tribune's political obituary, Truman held his lead. By morning Dewey had conceded, and I was emotionally bonded to "Give 'Em Hell Harry."
My personal encounter with Truman occurred in 1958. during a week he spent at Yale, where I was working on my doctorate. Truman was about to meet with a graduate student group of which I was an officer. As he was escorted into the Hall of Graduate Studies, I met him …