Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

WWTD? Harry Truman as a Role Model

CLYBURN: Now, when I was eight years old is when Harry Truman ran. If I've got a political mentor, it's Harry Truman. I study Harry Truman to this day. I keep [David] McCullough's book on Truman right by my bedside. I got two copies, one I keep down in South Carolina and one I keep up here and every now and then when I'm at a loss as to how to deal with something, I say to myself "What would Truman do?"

BOND: Really?

CLYBURN: Oh, yeah, yeah, and I'll go and try to find a chapter in that book that might help me work through what it is politically I'm trying to do and it's been -- it's had a tremendous, I think positive, impact.

BOND: Why Harry Truman, though?

CLYBURN: Well, because Harry Truman ran for the presidency against all odds. Here's Thomas Dewey, a wealthy scion from New York, a big crime buster that everybody knew was going to be president one day. Here's Harry Truman from the little state of Missouri, who has just an ordinary background, who had a disability with his eyes, who sort of had a little bit, I think, of a complex. You know, the "S" in his name. He just put it there. When I go to high schools and I tell kids about this, I usually use Truman because so many kids think of the presidentcy as being something far beyond them and I talk to them about Truman and a lot of them can identify -- here's a guy who thought that in order to be important you needed to have a middle name, so he puts this S there and so I tell them, "Now, any time you write Harry S Truman, now you remember, don't a period behind that S because it doesn't stand for anything. It stands alone." These little things, I just -- just sort of endeared me to Truman.

Then, that newspaper headline. Here's a guy that nobody gives a chance, even a newspaper says he's got no chance and they even go to print the headline, but when all the votes were counted, Harry Truman was president and very unpopular. Never really caught on, but when people began to look back on what he did, Truman, to me, if you start ranking the presidents, I think this guy ranks in the top three even today. If you look at all that was going around, how this nation fit into the scheme of things, I think Harry Truman ranks in the top three, to me. He might be -- given George Washington, if you take him out of the equation, he might be one of the two.

BOND: Really?


BOND: I'm surprised. I admire Truman for many, many things. I don't know if you read the book Plain Speaking by Merle Miller, which I read years and years ago and I just thought, "Gee, what a wonderful guy who is a plain speaker -- "

CLYBURN: Absolutely.

BOND: " -- and can make the most complicated thing seem so simple."

CLYBURN: Absolutely, absolutely. And I think that's part of why he was not this big giant while he was serving and when you look back on it, that was the genius of the guy, I think.