That is such a GREAT question because the answer can go so many different ways and spur some fantastic debate. The Presidency is a difficult and terribly exhausting job every day and most Presidents have faced a lot of adversity throughout their terms simply because of the very nature of the position and its responsibilities. There are dozens of individual days that are hard to argue with if they are suggested by someone to be the most difficult single day faced by a President over the 225 years that the job has been in service.
I think that the day you suggested is undoubtedly near the top of the list, as are any of the days when a Vice President assumes the office upon the assassination or death from natural causes of the incumbent President, and November 22, 1963 was, of course, one of the darkest days in the nation’s history. The emotions and thoughts possessed by the people on Air Force One as LBJ took the oath office and they prepared to fly back to Washington, D.C. with JFK in a casket just a couple of hours after he arrived in Dallas on that same airplane very much alive are unimaginable. There are just no words for a tragedy of that magnitude, and, as you mentioned, the presence of a newly-widowed Jackie Kennedy, clearly in shock and standing in the crowded cabin of the plane with her husband’s blood and brain matter staining her clothing, adds a whole different dimension to the tragic day and was a hell of a way for someone to begin their Presidency. There was also the fact that nobody knew the scope of the assassination and whether there might be something even more sinister — an international conspiracy or a plot to decapitate the entire federal government — going on. Plus, LBJ was the only President to actually witness his predecessor’s assassination. As if a Presidential assassination isn’t shocking and traumatic enough, Johnson was only a couple of cars back in the motorcade. He saw what happened and he was taken to Parkland Hospital right behind JFK; LBJ caught a glimpse of the scene inside JFK’s limousine as the Secret Service past the vehicle in order to keep him protected inside the hospital; Johnson was in the building when Kennedy was officially pronounced dead. I’ve always thought that one of the strangest feelings ever experienced by a President had to have been when an aide entered the room where LBJ was being held inside Parkland Hospital and addressed him as “Mr. President” — the moment he realized that JFK was dead and that he was now President. Imagine that.
And yet, even with everything mentioned above, I think there are two other more difficult days faced by Presidents. One is April 12, 1945 — another day in which a President died in office and was succeeded by his Vice President. In this case, it was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who died suddenly at his retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia, and was succeeded by Harry S Truman.
FDR was clearly dying when he won an unprecedented fourth term as President in 1944, and his health was declining noticeably. When he took the oath of office for his fourth term in January 1945, FDR was sworn in on the South Portico of the White House instead of at the U.S. Capitol. It was said that the inaugural festivities were scaled back because of World War II and that certainly played a part, but FDR’s failing health was also a factor. At just 557 words, Roosevelt’s Inaugural Address was the second-shortest in American history — only George Washington’s second Inaugural Address (March 4, 1793), which was 135 words long, was shorter than FDR’s fourth. After the physically taxing trip and summit with Stalin and Churchill at Yalta and meetings with other Allied leaders in February 1945 — a journey which would have been punishing for even a healthy person — FDR gave a report on the agreements to a Joint Session of Congress. At Yalta, officials from the other Allied delegations were alarmed by FDR’s appearance and when FDR gave his speech to Congress he did so from a seated position, apologizing for his “unusual posture” and noted that it was “easier for me not to have to carry about ten pounds of steel around on the bottom of my legs.” The reference to the leg braces he had worn since contracting polio in 1921 was the first time Roosevelt had ever publicly acknowledged his physical disability, and members of Congress now saw what those at the Yalta Conference had seen — FDR was gravely ill.
One person who did not realize how badly the President was ailing was the Vice President, Harry Truman. In 1944, President Roosevelt had dumped his Vice President, Henry Wallace, from the ticket, and seemingly put the decision of his running mate largely in the hands of the Democratic National Convention. In reality, Roosevelt was virtually positive that he would not survive his fourth term and he wasn’t simply choosing a Vice President — he was choosing a successor. Vice President Wallace didn’t cut it as a successor (not to FDR and definitely not to the leaders of the Democratic Party), and Truman steered the Convention towards Truman, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, and James F. Byrnes, a former Congressman, former Senator, former Supreme Court Justice, a longtime advisor-without-portfolio to FDR and the ultra-powerful director of the War Mobilization Board.
Roosevelt eventually decided that Truman was the guy he wanted and worked behind-the-scenes to get him nominated at the Convention despite a floor fight by passionate supporters of Wallace who wanted to keep him on the ticket and by Truman’s own reluctance to leave the Senate, a job he loved more than anything he had ever done in his life, for the Vice Presidency, which was powerless and boring and lacked even a hint of influence within Presidential Administrations at that point in history. Once elected and sworn in as Vice President, Truman was no different than any of the previous Vice Presidents — he had nothing to do, wasn’t included in on decisions or discussions of policy, and had almost no personal or professional relationship with President Roosevelt. The only thing of note that Truman did during his Vice Presidency was cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate to help his predecessor in the Vice Presidency, Henry Wallace, get confirmed as Secretary of Commerce. Truman spent most of his days on Capitol Hill, and was at having drinks with a small group of Congressmen and Senator in the office of House Speaker Sam Rayburn on April 12, 1945 when he got a call summoning him to the White House ASAP.
Truman wasn’t sure what was going on, but Allied troops were quickly closing in on Berlin that month from the west and the east, so it could have been just about anything. When he arrived at the White House, it was First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who told him, quite bluntly, “Harry, the President is dead.” Despite FDR’s poor health, Truman was stunned. “Is there anything I can do for you?”, the new President asked Eleanor Roosevelt, and the new widow responded, “Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now.”
That wasn’t an exaggeration. World War II was coming to a close in Europe and still raging in the Pacific. Within two-and-a-half weeks of Truman’s succession to the Presidency, Mussolini was captured and killed by his own people in Italy, Berlin fell to the Soviets, Hitler killed himself in his bunker, Germany surrendered, and the war ended in Europe. And, at some point shortly after Truman was sworn into office, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson briefed him on the work being done to build an atomic bomb. Truman — the only President to order a nuclear strike — was completely in the dark about the Manhattan Project and the goal of building a nuclear weapon until after he became President. With all of that to come, everything going in on the world, and the fact that he had suddenly succeeded the longest-serving President in American history — a man whose image was hanging in the houses of millions Americans next to an image of Jesus — in the midst of the bloodiest war in the history of the world is why Truman’s April 12, 1945 was a more difficult day than LBJ’s November 22, 1963. The day after he was sworn into office, Truman said to reporters, “I don’t know whether you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.”
The other day that I would consider one of the single most difficult days experienced by a President doesn’t require much of an explanation because most of us remember it well. We lived through it and it’s tragically memorable in the same way that older generations remember November 22, 1963 or another day that was very difficult for a President, December 7, 1941 (the day of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor). No matter how I voted, or how I felt about George W. Bush when it came to other issues and his Presidency overall, I will never forget his poise during the days after September 11, 2001, which was without a doubt one of the toughest days any President has ever experienced. He was a bit unsteady on the day of the attacks, at least in his statements early in the day, but we were all unsteady. We didn’t know what the hell was going on, and the President was in the frustrating position of not being allowed by the Secret Service to return to Washington, D.C. until later in the evening. He was removed from the situation, forced to remain in the air aboard Air Force One as it flew across the country, protected by fighter jets, to a secure location in Nebraska. President Bush began to find his footing with his address to the nation that night from the Oval Office once he finally ordered to be taken home to Washington, and he was fantastic throughout the rest of that week, especially at the National Prayer Service and when he visited with the family members of victims and with rescue workers at Ground Zero.
Knowing how difficult 9/11 was for regular Americans like me, far removed from the horror in Manhattan, in Pennsylvania, and at the Pentagon, I can’t imagine how hard that day was to the actual victims of the attacks, or those people connected to the victims. And it’s impossible to understand how hard September 11, 2001 was for the President of the United States, from the moment Andy Card whispered the news to him in that classroom in Sarasota, Florida until he finally went to sleep that night after a day of attacks on the country unlike any that any other President has ever faced. Like I said at the beginning of this answer (approximately 90,000 words ago), this is a great question because it has so many possible answers and opens up a very interesting debate. But in my opinion, no President had a more difficult single day than George W. Bush on September 11, 2001.
33rd President of the United States (1945-1953)
Full Name: Harry S Truman
Born: May 8, 1884, Lamar, Missouri
Political Party: Democratic
State Represented: Missouri
Term: April 12, 1945-March 4, 1953 (Assumed office upon the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt)
Age at Inauguration: 60 years, 337 days
Administration: 40th (Completed the 4th term of President Roosevelt) and 41st
Congresses: 79th, 80th, 81st, and 82nd
Vice President: None (1st term: 1945-1949) and Alben William Barkley (2nd term: 1949-1953)
Died: December 26, 1972, Research Hospital, Kansas City, Missouri
Age at Death: 88 years, 232 days
Buried: Harry S Truman Presidential Library and Museum, Independence, Missouri
2012 Dead Presidents Ranking: 8 of 43 [↓2]
When Harry Truman left office, he had one of the lowest approval ratings in American History. As the years passed — as we frequently see happen — Americans and historians began to remember him more fondly. They looked at his style of leadership and his decisive manner and recognized that Truman was a straight-shooter, confident in his ability, his power, and with the decisions that he made. We don’t have many politicians like Harry Truman anymore. That’s why he’s a favorite of leaders from both sides of the aisle — George W. Bush was a big fan of Truman (and has often mentioned the rehabilitation of Truman’s legacy when asked about his own low approval ratings). Truman wasn’t cool and unemotional like FDR was in private or calm and collected like Eisenhower was in public, but he was decisive and he never second-guessed himself. Truman doesn’t have a list of accomplishments that propel him to the top of the rankings, but his personality and his decisive leadership make him one of the greats.
1948: Schlesinger Sr./Life Magazine: Not Ranked
1962: Schlesinger Sr./New York Times Magazine: 9 of 31
1982: Neal/Chicago Tribune Magazine: 8 of 38
1990: Siena Institute: 7 of 40
1996: Schlesinger Jr./New York Times Magazine: 8 of 39
2000: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 5 of 41
2000: C-SPAN Public Opinion Poll: 7 of 41
2005: Wall Street Journal/Presidential Leadership: 7 of 40
2009: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 5 of 42
2010: Siena Institute: 9 of 43
2011: University of London’s U.S. Presidency Centre: 7 of 40
Truman and Eisenhower had a very complicated relationship. It started out well enough and in 1948, Truman even privately suggested to Eisenhower that Ike run for President and Truman would serve as his Vice President. Part of that was probably Truman trying to draw Eisenhower out to see whether Ike was a Democrat or a Republican (he hadn’t come clean on his party affiliation yet) and whether Ike had any designs on the Presidency (he did but not as a Democrat and not in 1948).
When Eisenhower did decide to run for President in 1952, Truman, while campaigning for Adlai E. Stevenson, was vicious and unrelenting on the campaign trail when talking about Eisenhower. Eisenhower, in turn, was critical towards Truman about Korea, among other things. Truman was most vicious when it came to what he saw as Ike’s failure to defend his friend General George C. Marshall, who Truman felt was one of the country’s greatest patriots and had been slandered by Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy. Eisenhower, in reality, was angry about McCarthy’s attacks towards General Marshall, but McCarthy was popular within the GOP in 1952 as Eisenhower was seeking the Presidency and he allowed himself to be photographed with McCarthy at a rally in Wisconsin. This really set Truman off and resulted in harsh words. During the 1952 campaign, Truman said of Eisenhower, “This much is clear to me: A man who betrays his friends in such a fashion is not to be trusted with the great Office of President of the United States.”
Then, there was a misunderstanding involving Eisenhower’s son who had been fighting in Korea but was back in the United States for Eisenhower’s inauguration. Truman had ordered Eisenhower’s son, John, home so that he could attend his father’s inauguration, but Eisenhower thought that Truman was trying to embarrass him and make it appear as if John Eisenhower was receiving preferential treatment.
Everything boiled over on Inauguration Day 1953 as Truman handed the Presidency over to Eisenhower. At one point, Eisenhower had threatened to break tradition and not even ride to the Capitol with Truman. He didn’t follow through on that threat, but he did arrive at the White House too late to share a small lunch that the outgoing First Couple had prepared for the incoming First Couple. Truman and Eisenhower did end up sharing a car, as by tradition, from the White House to the Capitol, but the conversation was anything but light. They were still sniping at each other by the time they arrived at the Capitol.
Still fuming about his son’s surprise appearance at the inauguration (which Truman actually meant as a nice gesture), Eisenhower asked Truman just minutes before Ike took the oath of office, “I wonder who is responsible for my son John being ordered to Washington from Korea? I wonder who is trying to embarrass me?”
Truman, still Commander-in-Chief for a few more minutes at least, responded in the third person, “The President of the United States ordered your son to attend your inauguration. The President thought it was right and proper for your son to witness the swearing-in of his father to the Presidency. If you think somebody was trying to embarrass you by this order, then the President assumes full responsibility.”
A few minutes later, Eisenhower was officially sworn in as President. Ike did eventually thank Truman for the gesture in a letter, but the relationship between the two Presidents remained very, very frosty. During Eisenhower’s two terms in office, Truman was not hesitant to take shots at Ike and continued even as late as 1961 as Eisenhower was leaving office, saying, “All I’ll say now is that when the people elect a man to the Presidency who doesn’t take care of the job, they’ve got nobody to blame but themselves. The trouble with Eisenhower is he’s just a coward. He hasn’t got any backbone at all…Ike didn’t know anything, and all the time he was in office he didn’t learn a thing.” Eisenhower was quieter than Truman, but snubbed him in different ways such as skipping the opening of the Truman Presidential Library - — and asking the only other living President, Herbert Hoover, to skip it, too (Hoover, who was close with Truman, said “I wouldn’t miss it” and was front-and-center).
Truman and Eisenhower saw each other briefly every once in a while — mostly at funerals — but it was at JFK’s funeral that they finally put everything behind them. They shared a limousine the funeral service, sat in the same pew, and chatted with each other to-and-from the Cathedral. When the Eisenhowers dropped Truman off after the funeral, Truman invited them inside and over drinks, in the wake of a young President’s tragic assassination, the two old Presidents squashed the longtime bitterness that they had towards each other.
Yeah, pretty much. Truman was very candid and didn’t have much of a filter. He’s also one of the only Presidents who actually gave his personal and historical opinion about nearly all of his predecessors (and the successors that he lived to see take office).
At one point he [Eisenhower] says to me, ‘Who’s your chief of staff?’ I held my temper. I said to him, ‘The President of the United States is his own chief of staff.’ But he just could not understand that. In all the years he was in the White House he never did understand that the President has to act. That’s why the people of the United States elect you They don’t elect you to sit around waiting for other people to tell you what to do.
Now when Castro came into power, if I’d have been President, I’d have picked up the phone and called him direct in Havana. I wouldn’t have gone through protocol or anything like that. I’d have called him up, and I’d have said, ‘Fidel, this is Harry Truman in Washington, and I’d like to have you come up here and have a little talk.’
He’d have come, of course, and he’d have come to the White House, and I’d have said, ‘Fidel, it looks to me like you’ve had a pretty good revolution down there, and it’s been a long time coming. Now you’re going to need help, and there’s only two places you can go to get it. One’s right here, and the other’s — well, we both know where the other place is. Now you just tell me what you need, and I’ll see to it that you get it.’
Well, he’d have thanked me, and we’d have talked awhile, and then as he got up to go, I’d have said to him, ‘Now, Fidel, I’ve told you what we’ll do for you. There’s one thing you can do for me. Would you get a shave and a haircut and take a bath?’
Of course, that son of a bitch Eisenhower was too damn dumb to do anything like that. When Castro decided to go in the other direction for support, Eisenhower was probably still waiting for a goddamn staff report on what to think.
"Why, this fellow don’t know any more about politics than a pig knows about Sunday…" — Harry S Truman, on Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1950
"Truman didn’t know any more about government than a dog knows about religion." — Dwight D. Eisenhower, on Harry S Truman, 1953