HERE was that awful moment at the Ak-Sar-Ben auditorium in Omaha, Neb., when the movie-camera spotlights swung slowly away from the still declaiming President on the platform below and, like accusatory fingers, traveled from the 1,500 seats that were filled in front to the 9,500 seats in back that weren't. (It sets my teeth on edge even now.) The President, of course, was Harry Truman in the 1948 election against New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey. The Roper poll had stopped taking samples, because it said it was useless as Dewey had already won. Life magazine showed the empty seats in its June 21 issue under the contemptuous title: ''The Truman Train Stumbles West.''
Scholars and journalists gathered at Hofstra University two weeks ago for a three-day pre-centennial conference honoring Mr. Truman - born in 1884. Some of the old awe came back to reporters who covered the astonishing 1948 victory. At one time Truman's popularity sank so low that no other modern president has equaled it. Yet now many historians list him as ''near great.'' Reporters rub their eyes. Harry Truman, the little man from the failed haberdashery, still baffles them.
There was that strange moment, for example, unique in history, after the first Truman Cabinet meeting in April 1945. Secretary of War Henry Stimson asked the new President to wait a minute: He had an extremely urgent matter to discuss with him privately. What could it be?
The word had come suddenly from Warm Springs, Ga., that Franklin D. Roosevelt , world leader, was gone. Vice-President Truman, up on Capitol Hill, had received a cryptic message from Steve Early, the White House press secretary, to call immediately. In a taut voice Early told him to come right to the White House as quickly and as quietly as he could. No details. Apologizing to House Speaker Sam Rayburn, Truman walked over to his office in the Senate by underground corridors. No one saw him. His chauffered black limousine hurried him to the White House. Up to the second-floor study. The Roosevelt family was assembled. The faces told the story. ''Is there anything I can do for you?'' he asked Eleanor Roosevelt. With calm courage she replied, ''Is there anything we can do for you? You are the one in trouble now.''
Nobody knew how deep this trouble was till Secretary Stimson held him after that first hastily summoned Cabinet meeting. President Roosevelt had never taken Truman into his inner confidence. It is an example of how astonishingly separate the various parts of the American government are. In the fewest words possible, Colonel Stimson told the new President that the nation had been working for months on a new weapon of extraordinary explosive force and that it was now ready to be used in the war against Germany and Japan. The words ''atomic bomb'' were not used.
Harry Truman was little better informed on the nuances of foreign policy than he had been about the bomb. He came to the most powerful office in the world with scarcely more than the political reputation he had made as chairman of the Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program. Mr. Stimson handed him a memorandum: ''Within four months we shall in all probability have completed the most terrible weapon ever known in human history, one bomb which could destroy a whole city.''
Could, and did.
The bomb was estimated to have the equivalence of 1,000 to 1,200 tons of TNT. This was incorrect: It was nearer 20,000 tons . . . .
Things in Washington moved very fast indeed with the world at war and a new President in the White House. I still recall the electric feeling at the first Truman press conference. It was the biggest crowd in history - 348. The exchange was more straightforward, literal, and prosaic than the Roosevelt conferences, in which the President had played a kind of tennis match with reporters. We felt anxiety and a little awe at the new figure. Truman stood erect. With a new interest I noted how the thick lenses exaggerated the hazel eyes. He wore his customary double-breasted suit - in a color to match his neatly parted gray hair - with the invariable World War I discharge button in the lapel. He moved back and forth, and for emphasis he made stiff, characteristic up-and-down chops with his right hand. His voice was flat, twangy, and confident. His self-confidence was reassuring.
There was dignity in the new figure. He did not look insignificant. It is hard to convey the feeling of reassurance with which we left. Reporters began to write soon after of ''Mister Average Man'' who was now leading the United States. But that hardly did him justice. There was an added quality of dedication and duty: It showed up in letters to his wife and mother and in his fond notes to his only child, Margaret.
Franklin Roosevelt was a cultured Hudson River squire - tempered by a physical disability - with boldness, imagination, sympathy for the underdog, and the best radio voice in America. President Truman came up the other way. He was fresh off Main Street; you could see somebody who looked like him behind a counter, working in a bank, seated at the courthouse judicial bench - shrewd and practical. There was a curious dualism in his public career. He emerged from a sordid political machine, but his integrity was impeccable. You got his measure as a farm boy, too poor for a bicycle, too poor for college, doomed at age 8 to the indignity of spectacles, trudging down the streets of Independence, Mo., undeterred by taunts with his roll of piano music under his arm. A beginning like that takes the conceit out of a lad if it does not leave him shy and self-conscious. This youth had self-confidence and a measure of dignity. After his Army service, when his men's store failed on 12th Street, Kansas City, he refused the relief of bankruptcy and paid off his debts over the subsequent 14 years.
Here, for example, is the story of Miss Tillie, who taught high school in Independence. Margaret Truman, married to Clifton Daniel of the New York Times, has repeated it in her admirable biography ''Harry S. Truman.'' There was somebody else in Washington who came from Independence: Charlie Ross, valedictorian of Truman's graduating class and then head of the Washington bureau of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He was earning $35,000 a year, one of the top journalist salaries in the city. Truman wanted him as White House press secretary. The White House could pay him $10,000.
Every reporter knew Charlie's deeply creased face and circles under his sad eyes. How could he take the cut in pay; how could he refuse the President? That night he told his wife he would take the job: ''That man needs help,'' he said.
When they graduated, Charlie was first in his class, Harry was just below him. On April 19, a week after FDR's death, Charlie told the President he would come. The two graduates of the class of 1901 sat down together to reminisce. Of course they thought of Miss Tillie Brown. Why, they would call her there and then! On graduation night so long ago she had kissed Charlie; but when a grinning Harry demanded similar reward, she told him he would have to wait until he had done something worthwhile. They got her on the telephone at once: Miss Tillie was now in her 80s. She was tremendously flattered. ''How about that kiss I never got?'' Harry Truman demanded accusingly. ''Have I done something worthwhile enough to rate it now?'' Yes, said Miss Tillie, you have.
Nobody whistle-stops anymore in American presidential elections, and the nation is poorer for it. The biggest of all whistle-stop tours was made by President Truman in the election of 1948. I was on it and we crossed the nation. Imagine yourself waiting for the President's special to arrive, looking up the railroad track that stretches straight and true for a mile toward Seminole Junction. The station safety signal swings down and the warning bell starts ringing. People have been collecting since 6 in the morning. Here she comes. There are two trails of smoke: This is no ordinary train. ''Jiminy!'' say the boys in awe, ''two engines!'' The Central High School band with its blue uniforms and plumed hats is ready. Katie Comstock, who is trigger-happy at the clarinet, involuntarily blows a perfect F sharp, which she has been trying for all morning.
I wrote an exuberant account of it back in the Monitor of Oct. 2, 1948. Slowly, the seven-car train, a third of a mile long, loses speed in a series of rumbles and grindings. The parlor car is named ''Ferdinand Magellan.'' You can see inside the cars, now: people eating, there is a man shaving. There is a car of shirt-sleeved men at typewriters. The train stops with the rear platform smack in front of Katie Comstock's white horsehair plumed hat. Band leader Ben Beaufort makes one imploring, compelling gesture, which means ''Give!,'' and the band goes into ''Hail to the Chief'' with verve and brio, and if they are not all exactly playing the same note at the same time, what difference does it make in all the competing sounds?
You can hear the thump, thump, of the big drum.
''The Next Pres-i-dent of the U-nited States!'' says a voice, and there he is. Harry Truman. Waving at them. There is a lot of talk by others too, occasionally with statistics. (Afterward, Johnnie Fairfield, who has a retentive mind, is sure that one of the numbers was ''twenty-five billions of dollars,'' but the connection with other matters eludes him.)
And now, says President Truman, ''Do you want to meet my family?'' ''Hurrah!'' shouts the crowd. The President introduces ''the Boss.'' Mrs. Truman , a motherly and comfortable figure, waves. ''And now,'' says Harry with a wink, ''let me introduce the Boss's boss!'' The crowd smiles and applauds for Margaret.
A warning ''beep-beep-beep'' comes from the end car and all the shirt-sleeved reporters write rapidly on yellow sheets held against the dusty side of the car and shout ''Postal!'' or ''Western!'' Young boys who work for Postal Telegraph or Western Union run to collect the copy that will be telegraphed from the station. There is a ''toot!'' up the track. The train lurches, moves, and is on its way. Truman will make 12 whistle stops today. The Central High School band gets into its waiting truck. And so, as I wrote so many years ago, the presidential train has come and gone. Tom Dewey is out on his train, too. How the age of airplanes has robbed us of political excitement and poetry!
President Truman traveled 31,700 miles by train in 1948 and made 356 prepared speeches and 200 more off the cuff. He was seen by 8 or 9 million people (a quarter the size of a modern TV audience). Of the nation's largely one-party press, according to Editor & Publisher magazine, 65 percent of the papers (representing 78 percent of the nation's newspaper circulation) supported Dewey.
Around 4:15 election afternoon, the Chicago Tribune distributed its edition headlined ''DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.'' But Truman, identified with the phrase ''The Buck stops here'' and ''If you can't stand the heat, come out of the kitchen,'' won after all.
Public estimation of President Truman has fluctuated wildly. There was a second honeymoon after his surprise 1948 victory and then his rating in the polls plummeted below that of any other modern president. Now it has picked up again. A group of historians polled by the New York Times in 1962 decided that there had been five ''greats'' among the nation's presidents (Lincoln, Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, Wilson, and Jefferson); two ''failures'' (Grant and Harding), and six ''near greats'' (Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Polk, and Harry Truman - ahead of John Adams and Cleveland). Rating presidents is fun but inconclusive, and requires detailed examination.
Truman led in such crises as that between Greece and Turkey, Europe's postwar economic collapse, the collapse of the wartime alliance, the revolt of Europe's colonies, and Korea. In the 1950 Korea crisis, Truman was able to lead 17 nations (with the passive approval of 35 others) into battle, not for conquest but for what historian Gerald Johnson called ''abstract principle.'' A lot of people would have assessed the reasons differently. Yet the testimony of one of America's leading historians, Henry Steele Commager, has weight with many. In an article in Look magazine in 1951 he gave the sturdy, positive Truman high marks:
How odd it is, Commager thought, to see a man being charged with being soft on communism who ''has done more than any other leader in the Western World, with the exception of Churchill, to contain Communism; that a man charged with 'mediocrity' has launched a whole series of farsighted plans for world reconstruction; that a man accused of being an 'enemy to private enterprise' has been head of the Government during the period of greatest prosperity for private enterprise; that a man accused of 'betraying the New Deal' has fought one Congress after another for progressive legislation.''
Why did Truman drop the bomb?
Stanford University historian Barton Bernstein, reviewing the evidence at the recent conference of scholars at Hofstra University, indicates it was an almost automatic decision made by FDR and accepted by President Truman as a legacy. The US had broken the Japanese diplomatic code and knew that Tokyo was telling its embassy in Moscow to explore peace proposals. But would the Japanese military accept surrender? Would they not even overthrow the Emperor rather than give in?
Dr. Bernstein described the crude US bombs as held together ''by tape and quick-drying glue.'' Washington felt America would win the war. The question was , at what cost? By one guess, an invasion would result in 300,000 US losses in the first month. Which Japanese cities would be bombed? Originally, Kyoto was included, a city of 1,379,000. But it was spared because it held religious shrines. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were picked. A possible third bomb was not used.''There was no 'decision,' '' the speaker said.
''There was never a debate over 'whether.' '' In a later estimate, Clark M. Clifford, former White House counsel, argued that Truman's leadership in the Marshall Plan, NATO, the Greek-Turkish crisis, and the Berlin airlift ''saved the free world: If he hadn't stood firm we would have gone under.''
That's one estimate. Little Harry Truman is a hard man to classify. His modern rise among historians is almost as arresting, in its way, as his victory over the odds in 1948.