Harry Truman is every scorned political leader's hero.
Down in the polls as the 1952 election loomed, the U.S. President called it quits, his reputation severely battered having assumed office in 1945 after the death of president Franklin D. Roosevelt.
A lacklustre president in over his head. That seemed to be the verdict of Mr. Truman's contemporaries, even among plenty of Democrats.
Today, Harry Truman is still seen as a plain man all right, but a rather wise one, too, who guided his country with considerable skill in the immediate postwar era. Biographies of him in recent years have cemented this new historical reputation.
To "do a Truman," then, is what every political leader who is down in public esteem upon leaving office hopes will be his fate.
Former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper must he hoping for a "Truman," because he lost the last election that was more than anything a referendum on his almost 10 years in office and on him.
The verdict was not kind, at the polling booths and in the polls. Outside the Conservative Party core, Mr. Harper was unpopular, to put it kindly. Critics didn't just disagree with him, they despised him. Seldom in recent Canadian political history has a leader produced so much political spittle from so many people.
The hoary cliché has it that time heals all wounds. But does it? Is it possible to turn around a political reputation with the passage of time? Could it happen with Mr. Harper once the passage of time provides a more dispassionate perspective?
Politicians, being human, apparently hope so. Former prime ministers have written autobiographies, putting their spin on events: John Diefenbaker, Lester Pearson, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin. (Only Pierre Trudeau bucked the trend, but he had an army of admirers to write glowingly about him.) It is doubtful, however, that any of these tomes changed opinions among contemporaries or historians.
The "formers" give speeches or interviews about their time in office, or comment on contemporary events, hoping to have an impact. Remember Mr. Trudeau's fierce condemnations of Mr. Mulroney's Meech Lake Accord, and of the criticisms by Messrs. Chrétien and Martin of Mr. Harper's stewardship of events?
One test of reputation is what major changes a prime minister accomplished that outlived his time in office and became part of the warp and woof of the country. These become testaments to prime ministerial vision.
Today, no one would overturn the Official Languages Act or the Charter of Rights and Freedoms or Canada-U.S. free trade or the goods and services tax or multiculturalism or the Maple Leaf flag. What is it that the Harper government did that will sink its way into Canadian laws and attitudes such that overturning the Conservative initiatives would be unthinkable?
Consider some of the accomplishments Mr. Harper recalled in his speech Thursday night to the Conservative convention in Vancouver.
Balancing the budget? The Chrétien Liberals actually did that trick years before Mr. Harper took office. Tough on crime? Many of those laws are being overturned by the courts or the new Liberal government. A "principled" foreign policy? Already scrapped by the Trudeau Liberals. A reduced size for the federal government and lower taxes? Again, already being scrubbed by the Trudeau Liberals. Building up the armed forces? Sorry, the Conservatives in real terms cut the military budget in their last years in power.
None of this suggests the Conservatives were idle in office. They were in fact very busy, but not much of what they did irrevocably shaped the country such that the measures have not or will not be overturned, with a few exceptions.
One is party financing, which began under the Chrétien Liberals but which Mr. Harper lowered to small individual contributions. Uniting the right, definitely. Another was the free-trade deal with the European Union that will certainly be ratified by Canada but which remains controversial in some quarters in Europe. There might be a few others his admirers could underline, but were they nation-shaping?
Time will doubtless change Mr. Harper's reputation, because future events offer new perspectives on the past, and the emotions of today give way to different reflections. It is too soon to tell if Mr. Harper' reputational change will be marginal, substantial or enough to "do a Truman."