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It has been quite a journey. I've spent the past four months reading the twin biographies of Roosevelt and Truman, and I feel as if I've known them personally. I wandered the meandering path of their lives, seeing their worst moments and their best, failures and triumphs. But I digress. The time has come to decide on who was the better president.
Both Roosevelt and Truman had drastically different approaches to the presidency, and it is difficult to gauge which was more successful on the surface. I'll look briefly at each's personality and how it affected the presidency, positively and negatively, before deciding on the winner.
Roosevelt was the grand manipulator, the chessmaster who knew all the important pieces and who was always many moves ahead. His presidency was so successful because he was such an expert of diplomacy. He had the gift, an uncanny knack to shift people's opinions of him and each other around in a way that often left them with no idea they had been manipulated to begin with. He was elected for four terms, a prime example.
The major success of this approach was Roosevelt's years-long coaxing of American public opinion from absolute isolationism to dedication for a massive overseas crusade. This was achieved in multiple gambits. He secretly supported Allied Europe so as to be invisible to the isolationist electorate and thus secure his early reelections with no problem. He made a number of speeches about the growing threat of Nazi Germany while simultaneously saying in public that America would not involve itself. When a few of his support-Europe programs were discovered, he stated that they existed precisely so America didn't have to involve itself. Basically he told one bald-faced lie after another while shifting opinion and resources toward gearing the United States up for war. The only thing he couldn't figure out was how to get America actually into the fight, but that was taken out of his hands with Pearl Harbor.
By contrast, Truman's approach was based on being as honest as possible to the American public. He found it very difficult to lie to the media, often just avoiding questions that he could not safely answer instead of creating a fiction. Truman held himself to an impeccable moral code. This defined his treatment of people and his approach to policy making in general. Consequently, he was one of the greatest presidents of our time for consistently doing the right thing instead of bowing to political pressure, worrying about affecting reelection chances, and caving to compromise on countless controversial issues of the time.
His ceaseless efforts in the field of political dynamite that was civil rights was the triumph of Truman's dedication to making morally right decisions, and this has had ramifications to this day in setting us on the path to equal rights for all people of all colors and sexes. In addition, Truman paid no mind to the extremely negative public opinion that followed when he stuck with his decision to involve and keep America in the Korean War, along with sending sizable funding in the direction of the postwar European nations.
On the flip side, Roosevelt's personality made his cabinet a confused, competitive mess. And Truman's made him blind to scandals among his own cabinet. So whose approach wins out...?
With regard to their approaches to the presidency, I regard Truman as the winner in this category. While Roosevelt was able to manipulate people effectively to achieve his policy goals, this both: went to his head with regard to the attempt to pack the Supreme Court; and created a disconnect between the real Roosevelt and the American people, as all they saw was the image Roosevelt had tailored, not the real man they had elected. By contrast, Truman held to a code that involved being as honest and moral as possible. As a consequence, he was visited upon by more criticism and controversy, but imagine the uproar that would have followed if Roosevelt had been honest with the American people from the beginning?
The point I'm trying to make is this. I believe that Truman represents, more than any other president I've read about, the ideal president as the founding fathers saw it. The founding fathers sought to create a system that would result in leaders who would act according to what was right in a way that was approved by the people. Above else, they did not want another king; a leader who would use his executive powers to manipulate the people who depended on him, for good or ill. While Roosevelt did all that he did in the name of good, the means of doing so involved subterfuge, enormous gathering of political power, careful securing of reelections, and hoodwinking of the populace, media, and the rest of the administration. Truman was the representation of the founding fathers' dreams, a man of the people who had grown up among them and had not forgotten them. And thus I believe that, in this category, Truman is the winner.