Bush's Truman Show

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The president did seem mildly chastened by his party's defeat in the midterm elections—but not inclined to change course dramatically in Iraq.

He compared his situation to the crisis Harry Truman faced in the early days of the cold war. Then, as now, Bush said, the United States confronted a dangerous ideological foe. Truman had answered with the Truman Doctrine, a vow to protect free peoples wherever they were threatened with communist domination. Truman's policies had been unpopular in their time, but "history showed he was right," said Bush, according to Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate.

The Truman comparison didn't seem quite right to Durbin. When the president went to him for comment, Durbin voiced his doubts. "Harry Truman had allies," Durbin pointed out. The Truman administration had helped create the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to contain communism. After Britain withdraws its troops later this year, Durbin says he told Bush, "we will be virtually alone in what we are trying to accomplish there." Durbin says that Bush did not become angry, but he did seem irritated and "insisted that this was an ideological struggle, which wasn't my point at all," says Durbin. "He was very defensive." (White House spokesman Tony Snow confirmed the exchange between Bush and Durbin but said "the president was not really trying to compare himself to Harry Truman so much as to talk about the duration and nature of the struggle.")

Bush's grasp of history may have been a little shaky, but there is no doubting the force of his conviction. Bush wants his legacy to be the long-term defeat of Islamic extremism. Indeed, senior officials close to Bush who did not wish to be identified discussing private conversations with the president tell NEWSWEEK that Bush's plan after he leaves the White House is to continue to promote the spread of democracy in the Middle East by inviting world leaders to his own policy institute, to be built alongside his presidential library.

Many presidents find solace in comparing themselves to their predecessors, the only people who could truly understand the job at hand. Truman is a favorite, particularly for presidents with low poll numbers. By 1952, the last year of his presidency, Truman's approval rating sank as low as 22 percent, about 10 points lower than Bush's. David McCullough, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography "Truman," tells NEWSWEEK that, faced with an uphill re-election fight in 1992, George H.W. Bush invited McCullough to the White House to talk about how Truman had beaten the odds in the 1948 campaign (unlike Truman, Bush lost his re-election bid). The two Roosevelts and Lincoln, of course, are popular role models. Bill Clinton, who spent many hours in office fretting over his legacy, lamented that he might not rank highly because he lacked the opportunity to be a "war president"—perhaps overlooking in his meditations the impact of the Lewinsky scandal.

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