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TRUMAN LICKED `LITTLE MAN' IMAGE

On April 12, 1945, the drumbeat of war news was interrupted by a stunning flash: President Franklin Roosevelt was dead of a cerebral hemorrhage and Americans asked who could possibly take his place.

Many did not even know the name of the new president.Harry S. Truman.

Roosevelt was a patrician, larger-than-life figure to many; a masterful communicator who had brought the country through the Depression and defended democracy against Nazi and Japanese aggression.

Truman, by contrast, had the aura of a Missouri hayseed and product of a corrupt Kansas City political machine who, despite his distinguished service in the Senate, could not possibly be up to the task of running the country.

"Here was this little man who had failed in the haberdashery business," recalls Ken Hechler, who served on Truman's White House staff from 1949 until 1952.

"He had this Middle Western twang. He had difficulty reading speeches, stumbling over words," said Hechler, who is now West Virginia's secretary of state. "The popular image was that he was just too small for the job. The shoes were bigger than the man."

Fifty years later, Americans admire him as one of the great presidents. His legacy - creation of NATO, the Marshall Plan, dropping the atomic bomb on Japan, integration of the armed forces - seems astonishing today.

Even more compelling is the image of Truman as a homespun champion of the common man, an ordinary person who summoned the courage to do extraordinary things - and who was not afraid to make decisions and stick to them.

"He wasn't afraid of political backlash that might occur from things that might seem unpopular at the time," Hechler said in an interview.

The day Roosevelt died, Truman had been vice president for 82 days. It was a job he had not sought; he had been happy in the Senate as chairman of a committee investigating defense contractors.

In his memoirs, Truman recalled that on the afternoon of April 12, 1945, he was in Speaker Sam Rayburn's office - members often gathered there for drinks and camaraderie - when he received a telephone call from Roosevelt's press secretary, Steve Early, to come immediately to the White House.

He reached the White House a few moments later and was given the news of Roosevelt's death by Eleanor Roosevelt, in her study.

"The overwhelming fact that faced me was hard to grasp," Truman wrote. "I had been afraid for many weeks that something might happen to this great leader, but now that the worst had happened I was unprepared for it."

Truman was administered the oath of office by Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone and suddenly, at 7:09 p.m., he was the 33rd president of the United States. A short Cabinet meeting followed, and then War Secretary Henry L. Stimson briefed the new leader about a powerful new explosive in the works, the atomic bomb.

Roosevelt had not told his vice president about the Manhattan Project.

"I had only seen the vice president on the occasion of the inauguration," George Elsey, who worked for both Roosevelt and Truman and in 1945 was an aide in the war map room, said in an interview. "He was not briefed on any aspect of the war. Roosevelt had not involved any of his previous vice presidents in executive branch decisionmaking."

The next day, Truman revealed how uncertain he was about his own abilities. He unexpectedly went to Capitol Hill for lunch with members of Congress, then appeared before reporters.

"Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now," he said. "I don't know whether you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on me."

Today, politicians of both parties regularly invoke Truman's name. He is seen as the politician who looked out for regular folks and stood up for his principles.

"He had two signs on his desk," Hechler recalled. "Everyone knows about `The Buck Stops Here.' But he had another one, a quotation from Mark Twain in Twain's handwriting, which said `Always do right. This will gratify some of the people and astonish the rest.' He tended to follow that."