33. Harry S. Truman

Independence Day (May 7, 2010)

At age 33 -- the same age I am now -- Harry Truman considered himself a failure. 28 years later, he was reordering the human condition, contemplating options with no precedent, that no man has dared use since.

So Independence is intriguing. They guy who started the atomic age, who defined the Cold War, who helmed America into an age of global dominance, claimed to be a small-town hick. The guy was supposedly defined by Midwestern, simple values, and those values had to serve him through the end of World War II, the start of the Cold War, the creation of Israel and mounting racial tension. It makes you want to see the town.

Which you can! Truman himself admitted that Independence had changed beyond recognition -- it went from 6,000 to 100,000 in his lifetime -- but he never soured on his home. He was there for 20 years after leaving the White House, building his library, shaking hands, dishing out street justice ... Harry Truman was the Archie of his very own Riverdale, only if Archie got old, finally settled on one babe and eventually died.

It's a neat story arc. His family (a bunch of farmers at heart) moved to Independence when he was very young, changing homes every few years as economic circumstance warranted (his dad was a crappy investor, which Harry apparently inherited). He supposedly spotted his future wife at Sunday school when he was 6, and was smitten with her even then; they graduated high school together though they were not an item. When he tried to get his career off the ground -- working as a banker in Kansas City -- he was suddenly called to help on the family farm (a little south of Kansas City) and did his time there.

So with very little savings, very few career prospects and no wife, Truman was just thrilled to sign up for World War I. When the potential of trench warfare and mustard gassing looks appealing, that, my friends, is failure. He turned out to be a fine leader despite his age, captaining an artillery brigade. After years of courtship and a few rejections, Bess agreed to marry him on his return home. She had some money and a huge house, which are wonderful things to have in a wife. And his turnaround was completed as he opened a haberdashery in downtown Kansas City. Which bombed.

That's what makes Truman interesting to me -- he kept getting kicked in the teeth, but he kept on plugging. He bought oil wells which crapped out. His clothing store was such a mess that he was paying off the debts for a decade. He wanted to be a concert pianist or a professional, but instead he had to swallow his dreams and help out on the farm. In school he sucked at sports and ended up burying his nose in books. Harry Truman is basically relatable to anyone who's ever had a crappy setback, and everyone has had a crappy setback.

His start in politics wasn't even glorious. He needed a job, and was picked out as a puppet for Jackson County Judge (a county administrator, basically) by Tom Pendergast, the scumbag who ran Kansas City's Democratic political machine. Truman was a good administrator, but he had to play the game, handing out jobs to cronies and that sort of thing. It made him feel slimy. Pendergast allegedly got tired of Truman being too upright, so he just moved him out of Kansas City by arranging his nomination for the Senate; once elected, he was shunned by colleagues as the "Senator from Pendergast." Pendergast helped him out by getting indicted and then dying, though, and when left to make a name for himself, Truman finally started getting the breaks. He got the vice presidency because he was inoffensive and well-liked for his attempts at cutting down acquisitions abuse in the Army. And then FDR helped him out by dying.

So suddenly, a small-town hick is in charge during one of the most turbulent periods in U.S. history. He has to finish the war, set up the new world order, transition back to a civilian economy and (on the cultural end) deal with the transformation of traditional gender roles and race relations.

They actually have a walking tour of the town mapped out, and it's worth it -- Truman himself was an avid fan of walks, usually snapping off a two-miler around town every morning that his schedule allowed. (He always seemed to dress pretty smartly, though, whereas you will probably be in a track suit or some kind of T-Shirt from Senor Frog's.) As much as the town has grown, a lot of Truman's neighborhood still has the same character; you go past the homes of all his old friends, the site of his high school, the meeting hall where he voted, the church where he got married and the courthouse where he had his offices as Judge. A few of Truman's boyhood homes are just a few blocks from the Delaware Ave. house where he moved in with Bess. I had a mango-peach smoothie at Clinton's, the soda fountain where Truman had his first job around 1898. He got $3 to sweep the floors and be a soda jerk as needed. I don't know that Truman ever had to work a smoothie machine, but I'm sure he would have done a hell of a job. When people complain that Wal-Mart is killing Main Street America, Main Street Independence is the sort of thing I imagine.

I can't tell you about the Delaware Ave. house, because they're busy reinforcing the Masonic enchantments on the Demongate in the basement. Or, as they put it, "putting in central air." The house is big, but that's more a reflection of the former wealth of Bess' family, not Harry's wild success. Truman wasn't flush with cash -- he actually took a lot of crap for putting Bess on the Senate payroll (answering his mail), but he had to do it to pay the bills. Leaving office in 1953 he didn't have much more than his military pension and some modest savings.

But he did have the street cred to drum up funding for his library, just down the street. I gotta say I liked it. Similar to the Ford museum in Grand Rapids, the museum portion tries to give you a snapshot of the era, not just a laundry list of reasons Harry Truman is awesome (which he sort of is). There are some very good displays highlighting the differences of opinion over the atomic bomb and Korea. It's reading-heavy, as they often use Truman's personal letters or memos to illustrate a point. But when you see how blunt and straightforward he was in his correspondence, how he sized up the players he was dealing with, you do get a better idea of the guy making all these worldbending decisions. Some notes to Truman are kind of thrilling -- Eisenhower reporting in from his first weeks at the newly minted NATO -- while others, like a 7-year-old girl begging Harry to rehire Douglas MacArthur to whup up on the Chinese, are kind of heartbreaking.

Artifact-wise, they have some stunners, like the guns used by the Puerto Rican nationalists who tried to kill Truman, and an original copy of the "Dewey Defeats Truman" newspaper. There's some cute stuff -- an invitation to the 1948 inauguration in which Harry scrawls that he hopes to attend, weather permitting. His office in the library is neat, as is the replica of his White House oval office. "The Buck Stops Here" sign has a pedestal of its own.

But the highlight is Harry himself, resting in a courtyard with Bess and their daughter. They have some nice, simple slabs in a pleasant flower bed. It's not too flashy because Truman wanted it that way. The tombstone does answer a mildly legendary copy editing riddle -- the "S" in Harry S. Truman stood for nothing, as Harry had grandparents on both sides with "S" names. Sticking to a bare initial avoided pissing off either side. So generations of journalists have been mystified as to whether or not to include a period. There's a period on his tombstone, so that's what I'm going with from now on. Etched in stone is good enough for me.

The whole experience was spiffy, not unlike a double-breasted suit. I gotta read up on the guy, but I get the impression that Truman's politics weren't necessarily philosophical. Instead, they were grounded in his upbringing. He came up with a lot a hard-working, regular people, he lived through a time when a lot of those people couldn't seem to catch a break, and so be believed that those people would be responsible if government gave them a leg up. Modern thinking about "entitlements" has been poisoned by 60 years of mixed results; Truman was willing to keep up the New Deal and pull for health care, housing, etc. because it all made sense in the context of Independence. He saw a lot of the globe, but small-town Missouri was the lens through which he viewed the world. You might not agree with Harry Truman, but it's very hard not to respect the hell out of him.

FUN TRUMAN FACTS!

  • As a young, nerdy boy with glasses, Truman claimed to have read every book in the Independence library. Probably because it was 80 percent historical erotica.
  • Harry's failed investments included oil wells, his haberdashery, and a $3,000 stake in Col. Terry von Tuttle's Tantalizing Hair Tonic and Libido Lotion.
  • Truman's signature achievements as Jackson County Judge were vast improvements to the roads, building two new courthouses, and enforcing a double-breasted suit dress code at all times, even for farmers.
  • Among the many items in the Oval Office, Truman kept a glass-encased ear of corn. I don't know why, and I'm not sure I want to know.
  • Truman's artillery unit did not lose a single man during World War I, and don't think he didn't rub MacArthur's nose in THAT.
  • Truman had dreams of being a concert pianist and played throughout his life; as vice president he caused a minor stir by playing a piano at the National Press Club while Lauren Bacall was perched on top. Bess apparently was not pleased, and retaliated by grinding with Humphrey Bogart at a state dinner. You might not have heard about that, because the Freemasons covered it up. Daughter Margaret had a singing career, and as president Truman once wrote the Washington Post music reviewer, threatening to beat him up after he gave her a negative notice. Of course, he never did it. That's what the Secret Service is for.
  • The Trumans lived in Blair House for several years as the White House residence was remodeled, due to severe deterioration and "Hoover stains everywhere."
  • Supporters on the 1948 campaign trail urged the underdog Truman to "Give 'em hell, Harry!" But the thought of using atomic weapons on the Republican National Convention was just too horrifying.
  • Truman left office with some of the lowest presidential approval ratings ever, but historians have gradually increased their estimations of his performance. But no one at the McDonald's late shift misses you, and historians are still pretty pissed about how you handled McNuggetgate.

Truman Birthplace (May 8, 2010)

On May 8, 1884, Harry Truman came into the world in Lamar, Missouri. On May 8, 2010, I went to Lamar to see the spot where it happened. And there wasn't a historical reenactment or anything. Way to drop the ball, Lamar.

There's not a ton to the Truman birthplace. Lamar, in southwestern Missouri, was a cow town. Truman's dad was working with livestock in some capacity. He bought the house for the whopping sum of $685 in 1880; it didn't have electricity or plumbing, it was right near the train tracks, and the lot across the street was swarming with animals of many kinds. There are a few tiny downstairs rooms and a few tiny upstairs rooms. The furnishing is very plain, and you can "tour" the whole building in about 35 seconds. The Trumans left town when Harry was 11 months old and headed north to farm near Kansas City.

So basically, the house is a non-factor. They weren't bristling with exciting stories about Harry learning the true meaning of international relations through a run-in with an rabid steer; there was no tragic butter churning accident that killed a sibling and kept our future 33rd president from ever knowing the true meaning of love. If he tamed a horse using nothing more than a baby rattle and surprisingly firm grip ... well, the guide left it out. But you can take it for what it is: a sampling of circumstances. Truman's family trade was agriculture; he identified himself as a farmer, and so there's gotta be some value in seeing his roots up close, right? Plus you can drive around Lamar's cute town square, or stop at the same convenience store where I bought Pop Tarts for breakfast -- the exact same kind of Pop Tarts that John Anderson Truman would have hand-fed his baby boy 126 years ago. (Smores.)

Actually, it's kind of cool that the house is still there. Apparently the United Auto Workers bought the place and gave it to Missouri in 1959 as a way to thank Truman for all his good work on behalf of lazy people over the years. HAH! Truman himself came down for the dedication, but after that he never returned to the hallowed ground where, in 1884, he sprang from his father's temple wearing an impeccable suit and hat. I'm only sort of kidding. Check out this picture:

That's a Truman baby picture on the left. You'll notice that he has the same face as a 61-year-old Truman. To emphasize that point, I've photoshopped glasses onto the same photo, at the right. There's a lot I don't like about modern babies -- they're so spoiled that you can hardly expect a 4-hour coal-mining shift out of 2-year-old any more. But at least we're better looking these days.

Little White House (Feb. 12, 2011)

After a hard day of managing the nuclear terror you unleashed on the world, a man needs to unwind. Fortunately Harry Truman had the facilities of the U.S. government at his disposal, and the Navy puts bases in all the sexiest party spots. The old commandant's house in Key West was sunny, spacious, and just blocks away from the same bars where Ernest Hemingway had barfed. A terse, elegant, hard-nosed barfing, but barfing nonetheless!

Truman first went to Key West on doctor's orders, and was enchanted. He didn't get to take in many of the drag shows, nor did he care much for fishing, or wandering the streets in a drunken haze. But he did have lovely weather and a big honking house to pad around in. There was a nice bar, a poker table to entertain all his buddies, and access to a secure beach where he could work on that "all-over tan." (There have photos of a shirtless Truman, and despite supreme cardiovascular fitness, let's just say he didn't have an Obama body.)

The "Little White House" was relaxing enough that he ended up spending about half a year there over the course of his presidency. That's more time than he spent in the actual White House, which was under renovation as they took out all the FDR ramps. The building was orginally a duplex, but a particularly reproductive base commander converted it into a single residence to accommodate his 14 children. That left Harry with a ton of floor space and a swank wrap-around porch. His piano is still in the living room and his desk is sitting upstairs. And best of all, there are separate bedrooms! Harry was usually in Key West without Bess, but on those few occasions when you're on vacation with your wife, nothing harshes a buzz like having to sleep with her.

Truman wasn't the only POTUS to enjoy the accommodations. Eisenhower spent some time there recovering from one of his annual heart attacks, JFK conducted some diplomatic maneuvers on the lawn, and the Clintons even crashed there for a weekend even though it stopped being a government facility in the 1970s. The building probably isn't too high on the historical significance scale, but a few things are certain: Truman really put Key West on the map as a tourist destination, and the house really matches the whole Truman ethic. He was a simple midwestern guy, and his vacation time was charmingly ordinary -- poker, beach-bumming and really tacky shirts. He walked the walk.

FUN LITTLE WHITE HOUSE FACTS!

  • Truman referred to the loud shirts at the Key West "uniform" and changed into one as soon as all of the formal ceremony of his arrival was done with. Starting in 1950, he enforced a strict "no shirt, no shoes, no Communists" policy.
  • There's a rooster motif to some of the knicknacks in the house, as the rooster was an old symbol of the Democratic Party. You know, before they got rid of that stupid mascot and chose something more dignified, like a donkey.
  • The ashtrays built into the poker table were made from discarded naval shell casings. All guests also drank beer from goblets fashioned from the skulls of America's enemies.
  • The presidential yacht docked nearby to serve as a kitchen, communications center and make-out room for any Cabinet member who got lucky on Duval Street.



One man's quest to be the humblest person alive
Copyright 2013, Chris White