On April 17, 1945, five days after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s sudden death, of a cerebral hemorrhage, in Warm Springs, Georgia, his successor, Harry S. Truman, the nation’s thirty-third President, held his first press conference. Between then and the end of his Presidency, he held three hundred and twenty-four of them, during which he tried, usually with good humor, to answer what he was asked. In that first outing, he said, “If you want to ask me anything, I will try to answer, and, if I don’t know, I will tell you.”
Three months later, Truman was on his way to Potsdam, Germany, to attend a summit, which lasted more than two weeks, with the other members of the “Grand Alliance” that had defeated Nazi Germany: the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, and the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill (who was about to be voted out of office and replaced at the conference, by Clement Attlee). Before Potsdam, Truman crammed, as if for the biggest exam of his life. “Have been going through some very hectic days,” he wrote in the journal he kept intermittently throughout his Presidency. “Eyes troubling somewhat. Too much reading ‘fine print.’ Nearly every memorandum has a catch in it and it has been necessary to read at least a thousand of ’em and as many reports. Most of it at night.” The conference wore everyone down, but Truman returned to Washington with generally good reviews from his peers. “He seems a man of exceptional charm and ability, with an outlook exactly along the lines of Anglo-American relationships as they have developed,” Churchill remarked.
Last week, shortly after the seventy-second anniversary of Potsdam, Donald J. Trump, the nation’s forty-fifth President, attended a summit meeting of the G-20 leaders in Hamburg. But, after six months in office, Trump looked, and acted, like an awkward, uninformed outsider, the guest at the dinner with whom no one wants to converse. On Friday, upon his first confirmed in-person meeting with the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, Trump’s initial thoughts were that “President Putin and I have been discussing various things. I think it’s going very well. We have had very, very good talks. We are going to have a talk now, and obviously that will continue. We look forward to a lot of positive things happening between Russia and the United States and for everybody concerned.” While a new ceasefire agreement in Syria, announced after their meeting, sounded like welcome news, it also sounded a lot like several earlier ceasefire agreements in Syria. It’s far from clear what actually was said, or agreed to, in the leaders’ more than two hours of “very, very good talks,” though Trump soon tweeted this: “Putin & I discussed forming an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded.” Before Sean Spicer or Sarah Huckabee Sanders got a chance to translate the idea, which was widely judged to be silly and unworkable, Trump untweeted himself: “The fact that President Putin and I discussed a Cyber Security unit doesn’t mean I think it can happen. It can’t-but a ceasefire can, & did!”
It is to be hoped that Trump, at his next press conference, will be able to give a better sense of what went on in Hamburg. Perhaps he’ll begin to show that he intends to master big issues as well as the minutiae of the job. Since taking office, Trump has held eleven press conferences—ten of them in the company of other world leaders. In his only solo appearance, on February 16th, he rambled, and digressed; he boasted, as he often has, about what he viewed as his demonstrable greatness and enormous string of successes. “We have made incredible progress,” he said then. “I don’t think there’s ever been a President elected who, in this short period of time, has done what we’ve done.” His hostility to his interrogators was ever present, with references to “fake news,” “the failing New York Times,” and the pioneering cable-news network CNN, which led to this odd exchange with the correspondent Jim Acosta:
ACOSTA: And, just for the record, we don’t hate you, I don’t hate you.
ACOSTA: So, just wanted to pass that along.
TRUMP: Ask [the president of CNN] Jeff Zucker how he got his job, O.K.?
Privately, in frustration, Truman sometimes referred to the “sabotage press,” or “the traitors and sabotage press,” or “character assassins.” He had a particular animus toward a few columnists, among them Westbrook Pegler, whom he called a guttersnipe; and a few newspapers, among them the Chicago Tribune, which several times called for his impeachment, and once described him as a “nincompoop” and a “vote-stealing, graft-protecting, gangster-paroling” President who, to boot, had been a “catastrophic failure as the director of foreign policy.” But, unlike Trump, Truman never lost sight of the tradition he was part of, and honored.
At Truman’s final press conference, on January 15, 1953, he said, “This kind of news conference where reporters can ask any question they can dream up—directly to the President of the United States—illustrates how strong and how vital our democracy is. There is no other country in the world where the chief of state submits to such unlimited questioning. I know, too, from experience that it is not easy to stand up here and try to answer, off the cuff, all kinds of questions without any advance notice. Perhaps succeeding Presidents will be able to figure out improvements and safeguards in the procedure. I hope they will never cut the direct line of communication between themselves and the people.”
Through seven years, Truman, for all his flaws, embodied patriotism, spine, personal dignity, and, as he demonstrated at Potsdam, a determination to assume the responsibilities of world leadership, the reverse image of what the world saw last week in Germany. Even in the worst moments of the postwar Presidency, that standard was always met. But that was another world, and another time; regarding it from the distance of the present age only increases alarm at what the nation, and the world, is trying to get used to.