Washington — IT is hard to convey the feeling of relief and reassurance that suffused the Oval Office when the new President, Harry S. Truman, held his first press conference.
I recall the electric feeling as one of the biggest crowds in history worked its way in to look at the new world figure. This was the former haberdasher of Kansas City, Mo. There were anxiety and some awe among us. The sudden sorrow of the nation at Mr. Roosevelt's passing flowed out in sympathy to Mr. Truman. But above that there was the question: Could he meet the challenge?
The war was on: The world watched. President Truman stood erect. We scanned every detail. I noted how the thick lenses exaggerated the hazel eyes. He wore his usual double-breasted suit, matching the neatly parted gray hair, with the inevitable World War I discharge button in the lapel. He moved back and forth behind the desk where FDR had been immobilized, and made the awkward up-and-down motion of his right hand which was his inevitable gesture. His voice was flat, twangy - but above all, confident. The new figure had dignity.
No American public figure has been so often reap-praised, as he is again on the occasion of his centennial this week. He did not have to go to World War I - his eyesight would have excused him. He went from a sense of duty and became ''Captain Harry.'' Later, his haberdashery didn't pay off and he turned to city politics with the necessary aid of the Pendergast political machine.
Then in the Senate he achieved a mild reputation as head of the wartime watchdog committee. FDR took him on the national ticket as an afterthought but without ever telling him about the atom bomb which was building while he presided in the Senate. He was to be the man who ordered the dreadful thing dropped. People will argue about that for centuries; Harry Truman simply decided that it would save lives in the war if it were used, and slept soundly after giving the momentous order.
Revisionist historians can't make up their minds about Harry Truman. Now the jeat.'' Learned groups take informal votes and he rises in the scale - but always there is dispute. He was a little fox terrier of a man who came out snapping and barking and would fearlessly take on a lion or an elephant (the GOP). How can you appraise him?
Even today a reporter looks back on the famous whistle-stop campaign of 1948 with disbelief. Truman traveled across the nation making speeches from early morning to late at night from the rear platform of his special train (the ''Ferdinand Magellan''). There were about 50 reporters on board. Everyone knew it was a hopeless quest. But did Truman know it?
There was no reason for the Republican candidate, New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey, to exert himself; everyone knew he would be elected. As a result, Governor Dewey said little and became a figure for caricature, too: the ''little man on the wedding cake,'' some called him.
It was a jolly crowd on the Truman special. Every presidential train in those days created a song, and correspondent Tom Stokes put ours together in 1948, taking two statements from Truman speeches. He had told some audiences that the trip was nonpolitical, that he was going to receive an honorary degree; and on another occasion he rejected Republican charges of scandal. Tom Stokes rapped on the Pullman compartment table as the train rattled along, humming ''Oh! Susanna, '' and sang:
They can't prove nothing; they ain't got a thing on me.
Oh I'm going down to Berkeley, for to get me a degree!
We roared it out. There were endless verses. Members of the original party carried them to other groups. As I hum it now, it brings back a different, pre-TV world: the bounce of the train, the reporter standing at the side on the last car to catch any novelty in the candidate's speech, the appearance of the President who introduces his wife and daughter, the yell for ''Western!'' or ''Postal!'' from reporters at the end (young boys who worked for Western Union or Postal Telegraph run to collect the copy), the toot of the engine up ahead, and then our roadshow is off again to the next stop.
The trade magazine Editor & Publisher reported that 63 percent of the nation's daily newspapers (among them, they had 78 percent of the circulation) supported Dewey. Elmer Roper on Sept. 9 that year said Dewey had such a majority that he was giving up further polling.
Life magazine reported: ''The most impressive thing last week about President Truman's trip to the West was his incredible ability to pretend that nothing at all was going wrong.'' And for days after the election, magazines offered articles written in advance: ''What President Dewey will do.'' (I blush a little; I wrote one.)
This ought to have ended it, but it didn't. Truman's election gave him only a temporary reprieve. The unpopular war in Korea dragged on. There were scandals in lower echelons of his administration. Truman's approval rating in the polls dropped to 23 percent - even lower than Mr. Nixon's before his resignation.
How do you appraise a man like that?
Historian William E. Leuchtenburg of the University of North Carolina has tried a balance sheet. On the debit side he thinks Truman exaggerated friction with the Soviets, helped militarize foreign policy, assisted arms escalation, and pushed the hydrogen bomb. At home, some charge, he failed to halt McCarthyism, and did not push civil rights and social reforms.
Pro-Truman supporters deny this. They point to the amazing success of the Berlin airlift. Above all, they note the Marshall Plan. Winston Churchill called it the most generous act in history. American taxpayers helped restore Europe. If Truman had called this the ''Truman Plan,'' it could never have passed Congress. It is part of an almost incredible record: On his whistle-stop trip he made 271 speeches in 22,000 miles. And he got the Marshall Plan.
How to appraise a man like that?