Wednesday, September 06, 2006

History's fair deal to Truman

INDEPENDENCE, Mo.—Lincoln, Truman and George W. Bush graduated to the presidency from undistinguished military and business careers, and with parochial political histories. Comparisons of the three "war presidents" are hard to avoid on a trip to the Truman Library outside Kansas City.

Truman quickly faced bracing challenges — the Bomb, nation building, the Cold War, the Middle East. His public approval was low; the pundits were harsh. Truman has only grown in stature. Will the same be said of Bush?

The new Lincoln Museum reinterprets the 16th president for the age of the 43rd, notably rendering the 1860 presidential campaign as a series of TV attack ads. The Truman Library measures the 33rd president on his own terms, in handwritten notes. Truman's Oval Office (left) shows television as the newest piece of furniture, an untested political tool.

It's getting harder to imagine an age in which Lincoln could maintain open office hours, or Truman could campaign with whistle-stops rather than 30-second spots. But ex-Gov. George Ryan, sentenced today on corruption charges, is just one of many reminders of how politics combines grand and petty gestures. History favors politicians who distrust both impulses.

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