A Democratic president, facing waning popularity, heads into the heart of the country to seek support.

He chooses to speak at the state university in Madison — to be welcomed by thousands of young, eager faces in a bastion of liberal support.

The scenario applies to President Barack Obama's rally on Library Mall on Tuesday, but it also describes the last time a sitting president came to the UW-Madison campus — 60 years ago.

Harry S. Truman was on a 6,400-mile whistle-stop tour through 16 states when he spoke at the Field House on May 14, 1950, in front of a crowd of more than 10,000 people. It was also a midterm election year.

Some of the issues facing Truman were "eerily resonant" of those now facing Obama, said Jeremi Suri, history professor at UW-Madison.

Truman was encumbered by the perception he was losing a war — the Cold War — and spending too much money while the economy stagnated, Suri said. The Soviet Union had tested its first atomic bomb the year before and the president was accused of being too weak against the Communist threat.

"One of the reasons he comes to campus, in 1950, he's trying to drum up support at home, in the heart of the country," Suri said.

However, Truman's tour was not as blatantly political as Obama's visit.

Organized by the Democratic National Committee, Obama's rally will kick off a four-stop tour to help get Democrats elected in key states. The president hopes to capture the energy and mystique he had during the campaign, Suri said, to encourage ambivalent Democrats to vote in November.

"He's coming as president of the U.S. and as leader of the Democratic party," Suri said. "He's trying to charge up Democrats."

Other presidents have come to UW-Madison since Truman, but it was either before or after their term in office.

The 60-year gap between campus presidential visits speaks to Madison's liberalism — Democrats can count on the city and Republicans don't bother fighting for it — but also because college crowds weren't very kind audiences in the 1960s and 70s, Suri said.

Much has changed in the intervening years.

Truman arrived by train on a Sunday morning, then unexpectedly dropped into church services with his wife and daughter at Grace Episcopal Church, 116 W. Washington Ave. After lunch, he spoke at the Field House and dedicated the then-new $350,000 CUNA (Credit Union National Association) headquarters on Sherman Avenue.

Although Truman traveled with secret service agents, security was looser. On the day of Truman's visit, the State Journal printed an itinerary of Truman's schedule in 15-minute increments. Photos show him standing and waving to crowds in a convertible as he made his way around the Capitol Square.

Most likely, Obama's schedule for the day and route will be a state secret. When his motorcade does roll by, it will be swift and heavily armed.

But parts of Truman's address at the Field House sound like they could be written today. He spoke of a world becoming increasingly smaller by technology and an amorphous threat abroad. Truman emphasized the importance of working with other "free" nations and guarding against isolationism.

"This world is constantly being drawn close to us by improved communications and improved transportation," he said. "It is also being drawn close — dreadfully close — by weapons of destruction which become ever more terrible."

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