When the American rock band Chicago sang “America needs you, Harry Truman” in 1975, just three years after the former president’s death, no one then could have realized how much resonance that refrain would carry more than 40 years later.
The legacy of Truman — his character, his ethic, his decision-making prowess — seemed the perfect antidote to the crisis of leadership brought on by Watergate and the Vietnam War. “Things are looking bad,” the lyric suggests, and “I know you would be mad to see what kind of men prevail upon the land you love.”
If nostalgia for Truman in the 1970s was apropos, the yearning for him now is more than wistful. As our political drama transitions from comedy to tragedy, leadership has never mattered more. Consequently, Truman is as important and useful today as at any time since he left office. Those of us who work in what we fondly call “the Truman business” have observed an increased interest in the man who consistently placed principle over party and people over politics.
With an eye to enhancing the connection between Truman’s legacy and a 21st-century audience, the Truman Presidential Library and Museum in Independence is planning a major upgrade to its principal exhibits. The new installation, slated for completion in 2020, will offer a deeper exploration of some currently underrepresented aspects of Truman’s life and presidency, such as his service in World War I, the recognition of Israel, civil rights and the Korean War. In addition to addressing the needs of audiences here in the heartland, the renovated museum will also serve as a springboard to robust regional, national and international programming that will highlight one of the most consequential presidential administrations in U.S. history.
To that end, the Truman Library and the Truman Library Institute have recently partnered with American Public Square at UMKC and The Kansas City Star to produce a number of high-profile programs on topics related to Truman. Four programs for this initial series are already on the docket. The first is a panel discussion Wednesday probing the ongoing relevance of NATO. Rooted in what the press at the time dubbed the Truman Doctrine, NATO is a major foreign policy pillar that Truman put in place.
The Affordable Care Act and the future of health care in America will be the topic in late January/early February. President Lyndon Johnson, who signed the Medicare law in 1965 at the Truman Library, credited Truman with being the first president to call for universal health care coverage.
On March 1, we will host former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick for a discussion on civility in politics. On this score, Truman stands as an example of a fierce partisan warrior who knew that vigorously disagreeing with the ideals and philosophies of the opposing party was different from attacking the people in it. The final program in this series will be a March 13 discussion on fake news.
We cannot say with any certainty what Truman would have done or said about our current state of affairs. However, it seems reasonable to assume Truman would have chafed against the notion of “alternative facts” and willfully misleading polemics masquerading as news coverage. It was Truman, after all, who stated, “The truth is all I want for history.” Moreover, it was “Give ‘em hell” Harry who once mused that he never gave anyone hell: “I just told them the truth and they thought it was hell.”
As we fall deeper and deeper into that vast chasm between the truth and hell, perhaps the Chicago lyric from the mid-1970s still says it best: “America’s calling, Harry Truman. Harry, you’d know what to do.”
Kurt Graham is the director of the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum in Independence.