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On the Fine Art of “Doing your Damnedest”

March 25, 2019


He found himself in a difficult position. 

Very difficult. 

In 1946, the embers of the Second World War were still cooling. The beloved President Franklin Roosevelt had midwifed a nation through war only to die at the threshold of victory. Replacing him was the vice president and Missouri native Harry Truman. While Truman could claim some notable achievements as Senator prior to ascending to the vice presidency (consider his dogged efficiency and admirable integrity on the “Truman Committee”), he was sorely underestimated. In the wake of the Great Depression and the bloodiest catastrophe in human history, Truman looked like a shadow compared to the formidable FDR. While Roosevelt was considered suave, sophisticated, and steady, Truman was seen as a bespectacled hayseed, a failed haberdasher with little more than a high school education to inform him. Even FDR’s secretary, charged with serving the new president, spat, “I just can’t call that man President.” 

How on earth could such an unimpressive man navigate the uncertain waters in a dangerous, postwar world?

On a steamy August day in 1946, that was the precise question silently considered by the men surrounding the new President’s desk. In the wake of the War, the American alliance with the Soviet Union was fracturing. The mercurial Joseph Stalin would fume and bluster, cajole and collaborate, violate here and make amends there. It was enough to try the patience, much less the strategic agility, of even the most seasoned of diplomats. Now, the British confessed to America and the world that they were broke and incapable of providing financial and military support to strategically vital and economically vulnerable countries like Turkey and Greece. Seeing the opportunity for geopolitical advantage, Stalin and his puppets saw these countries as “ripe for the picking” to coerce into the Communist fold. War weary, yet clear-eyed about the danger of unchecked aggression, the dapper, blue-blooded, and Ivy League educated Secretary of State Dean Acheson and the accomplished Secretary of Defense James Forrestal briefed President Truman on the danger should the Soviets establish bases and armed forces in these crucial countries. 

As the briefing was concluding, a general quietly asked Secretary Acheson whether Truman understood the gravity of the impending decision. When the President inquired about the question asked, as Walter Isaacson describes in his book, The Wise Men,

Truman opened a desk drawer and pulled out a large map of the region. A hush came over the room as Acheson and the others huddled to look over the President’s shoulder. Then the self-taught history buff from Independence launched into a lecture about the strategic importance of the eastern Mediterranean and the critical need to keep it free from Soviet domination.

“When he finished,” Acheson recalled,“none of us doubted he understood fully all the implications of our recommendations.” The educational backgrounds of the two men could hardly have been more different, but Acheson was deeply impressed—“awed” he told a friend—by Truman’s grasp of history.

I love this story. In part, I love it because it is the story of upended expectations. Look at this guy compared to that guy,” it is scoffed, “I mean come on.” It is the story of underdogs. Young shepherd Davids and Hoosiers and Rudy Ruettigers and U.S. Olympic Hockey teams and Cinderella Men and that daughter of my friend at clinic who had a brain tumor resected months ago and qualified for state gymnastics last week.  

But as you might imagine, these stories don’t just happen. Oh, no. They are stories of fierce determination, grit, and an intense work ethic. They are tales finding that you are the only person who believes you can do it. Though Harry Truman never went to college, he had insatiable curiosity. His dad would save loose coins so the family could buy and read classics of literature. Truman claimed to read every book in the Independence, Missouri library (and some of them twice). He devoured the Bible and Shakespeare, but reserved his highest praise for the ancient Greek writer, Plutarch. 

I’ve read through Plutarch many times…I never have figured out how he knew so much. I tell you. They just don’t come any better than old Plutarch. He knew more about politics than all the other writers I’ve read put together. 

And he would go on to add, “The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.” 

Today, when I was teaching my class (The Art of Healing: A Practical & Benedictine Approach to Caring for Others) at St. John’s University in Collegeville, MN, I had two dear friends serving as guest lecturers. When we pooled our collective insight for the young and earnest class on just what is indispensable to success and fulfillment in your career, intelligence wasn’t the first thing on the list. Oh, sure, you need a healthy modicum of smarts to succeed in life, but it isn’t the dealbreaker. Instead, it is principle, passion, and purpose. It is humility, curiosity, and an insatiable hunger to learn. It is the drive to work hard, to think clearly, and to fundamentally get along with people. It is common sense and intuition edified by experience. None of these traits are measured by metrics or test scores. There is no way to quantify what is intangible (if not ineffable). But we all recognize the genuine article…and it is dynamite. 

Harry Truman ascended to the presidency in a shadow. He had feet of clay and made plenty of mistakes. He didn’t have the diploma, the pedigree, the social connections, or the polish that so many require before they would pronounce anyone a success. 

But he had something much more enduring and valuable: character. 

In 1952, at one of his last remaining news conferences as President, Truman offered this:

I always remember an epitaph which is in the cemetery at Tombstone, Arizona. It says “Here lies Jack Williams. He done his damnedest.” I think that is the greatest epitaph a man can have. When he gives everything that is in him to do the job he has before him. That is all you can ask of him and that is what I have tried to do.