Public Perceptions of Truman
Two levels of myth surround the public reputation of Harry S. Truman. At both levels we see him as an American folk hero, whom recent presidents and presidential candidates have been fond of citing as one of their favorites. The first, which we might call the "good old days" myth, suggests that the years of the Truman presidency were part of a near golden age in American political history, presided over by a beloved president, an ordinary man who rose to the occasion to grasp the greatness that history thrust upon him. Truman's candor and personal integrity were beyond question. He "told it like it was," and though this angered some people temporarily, they rallied to his support to enable him to defeat Tom Dewey in the great political upset of 1948. As Truman himself wrote to Winston Churchill at the time, "I had a terrific fight and had to carry it to the people almost lone-handed, but when they knew the facts they went along with me." 1 Despite the unpopularity of the Korean War and the accusations of Senator Joe McCarthy, Mr. Truman continued to be loved for these same qualities in the years after he left office.
The "good old days" myth will mislead no scholars of the Truman presidency and few attentive survivors of the Truman years. The evidence against it, of course, is overwhelming. Public approval of President Truman's performance in office, as recorded by George Gallup, was lower on the average than approval of any other president from Roosevelt through Carter. 2 In November of 1951, only 23 percent of the Gallup sample approved of his presidency, a percentage even lower than that approving of Richard Nixon in the weeks before he resigned his office in disgrace (see Figure 1). Only Jimmy Carter in July, 1980 recorded a lower percentage (21 percent). But approval of Carter rebounded to 32 percent within a month, while Truman's rating was still at 25 percent two months later and no higher than 28 percent seven month later. 3