Harry Truman had a ham sandwich and a glass of buttermilk at Excelsior Springs, Missouri, that election night of 1948; then he went to bed. He knew he was going to win but the reporters traveling with him knew he wouldn't. ''Does he know?'' We used to ask each other on his special train whistle stopping across the country. He seemed so carefree! It illuminated the different worlds that press and presidents live in. It continues today.
In 1948 the early returns tended to confirm that he didn't have a ghost of a chance of beating Dewey. First reports found Dewey taking New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the East. After midnight Dewey's campaign manager announced that the next president had retired. The Chicago Tribune got out its famous issue, DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN. If Dewey had carried any two of three states, Illinois, Ohio, or California, it would have gone into the House of Representatives. But he didn't. Truman got up perfectly confident. He laughed at the press. He had won. The ancient controversy went on.
The public had lost faith in the press. Truman charged: ''That is a good thing, too. No one segment should be able to control public opinion. Leadership still counts. The publishers' press is a very small part of our population. They have debauched the responsibility they owe to the country and the people have shown them just how they like it.'' He was belligerent. Even today it sounds just like Harry . . .
Eisenhower had trouble with the press, too (they all do; it is part of the job). Eisenhower avoided coming to the aid of Gen. George C. Marshall when Republican Senator McCarthy attacked him in the 1952 campaign. McCarthy called Marshall ''a front man for traitors'' and ''a living lie.'' The press asked Ike why he didn't reply? It is still strange.
Princeton's Fred I. Greenstein in last week's New York Times argues that Ike was working behind the scenes ''to help engineer the Senate censure and McCarthy's political demise.'' He says there is ''a seeming no-win paradox built in to the presidency'' in which the executive is at once the ceremonial head of state who should symbolize national unity, and at the same time is the ''political leader of the executive branch'' where his role is ''intrinsically divisive.'' Professor Greenstein feels that Ike, our last two-term president, handled his dual role correctly and that President Reagan should now take lessons from him ''in refusing to go public as a politician.'' He admonishes, ''don't make unnecessary enemies,'' and don't ''polarize the public by attacking the personal integrity or patriotism of opponents . . . .''
(All very well, but I must enter a personal disagreement; yes, Ike was a successful president but I still remember feeling chagrin as a reporter on his special election train in Wisconsin in 1952 when Ike welcomed McCarthy aboard and omitted a paragraph from his speech praising General Marshall. Harry Truman wouldn't have done that.)
President Reagan has just had a tiff with the press; it carries on the old tradition. He went to Massachusetts last week for a made-for-television appearance to be seen with blue-collar workers, high technology businessmen, minority job trainees and ethnic groups. Then, in off-the-cuff remarks, to the exasparation of his guides, he ruminated aloud that it is hard to ''justify'' corporate income taxes. It's an old dispute: recipients of corporate dividends of course pay taxes; is it fair to ask the corporations to pay preliminary income taxes of their own before the dividends go out?
The press, of course, grabbed the impromptu comment and ran with it. Poor Larry Speakes, the White House press secretary, showed his feelings the next day. The media have denigrated presidents for the past two decades, he said, and he associated this kind of reporting with the fact that no president since Eisenhower has served two full terms. ''My question to you is,'' he asked the National Association of Government Communicators here, ''can any man in public office stand up to the daily drumbeat of morning newspapers and the flashing symbols of evening news television shows?''
Yes, they can even if the Reagan comment was spoken ''half seriously.'' But the press secretary feels the press is overdoing the recession and not giving enough attention to the economic recovery. ''Why is it,'' he asked, ''that 10.8 percent unemployment is news, but the 89.2 percent of Americans who have jobs (and enjoy the world's highest living standard) are not?''
It is, I guess, because the press has one approach and the White House another and they aren't always the same. On the whole, the two groups get on pretty well. Occasional differences didn't bother Harry Truman! He just had his buttermilk and went to bed. He had the last laugh.