Harry Truman was reviled, now he’s one of our finest presidents. George Bush’s reputation may rebound the same way.

Harry S. Truman left office in 1953 mired in an unpopular war, his administration racked by scandal and his job approval rating a paltry 32 percent.

Ring a bell?

Yet less than a decade later, historians hailed the plain-speaking man from Independence, Mo., as one of the nation’s top 10 presidents. And in the 1970s, books, a one-act play that became a movie entitled “Give ’em Hell, Harry!” and a hit song by the rock group Chicago all contributed to an amazing turnaround.

“America needs you, Harry Truman,” crooned the group’s Robert Lamm.

So, many wonder: Will George W. Bush – stuck in an eerily similar set of circumstances as he leaves office – get the same bounce? Can a president who steps down with a 34 percent job approval rating, his country still entangled in an out-of-favor war and wrestling with a slumping economy, expect the same fate?

-Probably not, said Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas at Austin presidential scholar, who noted that Bush doesn’t have as many signature achievements.

“He doesn’t have as much to work with as Truman did,” Buchanan said.

-Perhaps, said Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution scholar.

“It could happen, if all the stars are in the right configuration,” Hess said.

Bush’s final job-approval rating may be low, but it’s hardly the lowest as measured by The Gallup Poll. Watergate-plagued Richard Nixon stepped down in disgrace with a job-approval rating of 24 percent. One-time peanut farmer Jimmy Carter departed with a Bush-like 34 percent.

In contrast, Bill Clinton left office with a 66 percent job approval rating and Ronald Reagan with 63 percent.

Bush, however, insists that he’s walking away with his head high.

“I hope (Americans) feel that this is a guy that came, didn’t sell his soul for politics, had to make some tough decisions and did so in a principled way,” he said recently in an interview on ABC.

“I’ll be frank with you,” Bush added. “I don’t spend a lot of time really worrying about short-term history. I guess I don’t worry about long-term history either, since I’m not going to be around to read it. But, look, in this job you just do what you can.”

On that front, Bush is right on, historians say. How the world looks today may be dramatically different from how it’s viewed two or three decades from now.

Criticism of Truman as he departed office echoes some of the criticism of Bush today.

“When Mr. Truman decided to enter Korea, he had the people and the press and the Congress with him almost unanimously,” the Los Angeles Times opined. “His management of this war, of which the recall of Gen. (Douglas) MacArthur was the most Trumanesque feature, resulted in the typical revulsion against Mr. Truman – the ultimate one.”

A Consolidated News Features columnist noted: “We are hated abroad; we are racked with inflation and rackets (no pun intended) at home; we are saddled with the costs of victory to a degree which suggests that Hitler might just as well have won. This is Mr. Truman’s legacy to his country.”

But history determined otherwise. Truman’s support of the creation of the United Nations, his integration of the armed forces, the Truman Doctrine that formalized his policy of communist containment, and the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe were all universally hailed after the passing of time.

He supported the formation of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. He recognized Israel and oversaw the downsizing of the nation’s defense budget. Even his decision to halt communist aggression in Korea eventually was given grudging respect.

Many historians viewed such decisions as significant, courageous calls with lasting effects. Since the early ’60s, Truman has typically shown up in the “near great” category of presidents.

“Truman had a successful presidency,” said Charles Walcott, a Virginia Tech political scientist. “It exceeded expectations by more than most presidencies. … Truman himself became evidence for the proposition that the office itself can bring out the greatness in the man. Nobody saw it in Truman until he became president.”

Truman’s rebound in public opinion came quickly. Just three years after leaving office, Gallup polls found that 45 percent of Americans viewed him favorably, while 34 percent viewed him unfavorably.

In 1962, Harvard’s Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. conducted a survey of 75 historians that ranked Truman as the nation’s ninth-best president.

Truman’s death in 1972 was followed by publication two years later of Merle Miller’s popular “Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman,” which captured Truman’s no-holds-barred and often folksy opinions.

At the time, the Watergate crisis was reaching its nadir. The same year, “Give ’em Hell, Harry!” starring James Whitmore, hit the stage, and a film with the same title was released the next year. Whitmore won an Academy Award nomination for best actor.

All these developments, of course, were outside of Truman’s control. That’s what gives historians pause as they consider Bush, who has already been the subject of articles, such as one in the Guardian of London, which asked in December: “Is George W. Bush the worst ever U.S. president?”

That article pointed to a Quinnipiac University study in 2006 that asked voters to name the worst president since 1945. Bush won handily, with 34 percent picking him as the worst, followed by Nixon at 17 percent and Clinton at 16 percent.

Indeed, a Pew Center poll in December found that 64 percent of American adults thought Bush would be remembered more for his failures than for his accomplishments.

Only 13 percent said Bush had made progress on the major issues facing the country, while 37 percent said he made those problems worse.

Bush’s aides defend him as a man who never shied away from tough calls, just as Truman himself said of his tenure when he left the presidential stage in 1953.

Bush “will be able to look himself in the mirror when he is done and say: ‘I gave it my best. I made decisions based on principle,’ ” former aide Dan Bartlett said in an interview on CBS.

David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter, said on the same program, “In foreign policy, where he has taken so much criticism, I think the assessment of history will be surprisingly positive.”

Others, though, criticize him in terms that Truman would find familiar.

“George Bush might very well be the worst president in American history,” historian Joseph Ellis said.

For Bush, political observers point out that the big unknown is the legacy of the war in Iraq, which many consider his most consequential decision, just as Truman regarded the war in Korea as his most crucial.

Another wild card for Bush is the worsening recession. The bailout of major financial institutions occurred on his watch, although the president insists that seeds leading to the economic collapse were planted before he took office.

“You know, I’m the president during this period of time, but I think when the history of this period is written, people will realize a lot of the decisions that were made on Wall Street took place over a decade or so, before I arrived,” Bush said in an ABC interview.

Perhaps the biggest accomplishment of the Bush administration is the lack of a second terrorist attack on U.S. soil after Sept. 11, 2001, and what aides called the foiling of several attempts. Bush vowed to keep Americans safe after the attack.

Indeed, “prevented another attack on our homeland,” is the first item listed in a White House document titled “100 Things Americans May Not Know About the Bush Administration Record.”

Although he rallied the nation after Sept. 11, the support didn’t translate to other Bush plans to reform immigration policies and Social Security, though he claimed not to have been too discouraged.

“I feel good about having tried,” Bush said about immigration at the American Enterprise Institute last month.

And like Truman, Bush can point to other achievements. A social conservative and born-again evangelical, Bush restricted federal support for stem-cell research. And with help from an unlikely ally, Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy, he won support for unprecedented federal involvement in public education with the No Child Left Behind law that remains controversial to this day.

But few will forget that he also was in charge when Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans in 2005 and was roundly criticized for a sluggish federal response.

The notion that his legacy will take time to establish itself is not lost on the outgoing president.

“You never know what your history is going to be like,” Bush said recently, “until long after you’re gone.”


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