Harry S. Truman and Elizabeth Virginia Wallace Truman

Serves: 5



“Tell them to go to hell and tell him the vice presidency is as useful as a cow’s fifth teat.” This was Harry Truman’s initial response when he heard FDR wanted to tap him as his running mate.

As Truman said, “The room was crowded and every damn politician who was a boss was there plus a half dozen governors. They all said ‘Harry, we want you to be vice president.’ And I said, ‘I’m not going to do it.’ Well, Bob Hanagan had put in a call to Roosevelt who was down at San Diego. “They finally got him on the phone, and with Roosevelt you didn’t need a phone, all you had to do was raise the window and you could hear him.”

“I was sitting on one twin bed and Bob was sitting on the other in this room and Roosevelt said, [here Harry Truman gave a near-perfect imitation of FDR, the Haa-vaard accent and all] ‘Bob, have you got that guy lined up for the vice presidency?’ And Bob said, ‘No, he’s the contrariest goddamned mule from Missouri I ever saw.’ ‘Well,’ Roosevelt said, ‘You tell him if he wants to break up the Democratic party in the middle of a war and maybe lose the war, that’s up to him.’”

Luckily, fate dealt America a great hand. Harry Truman did become FDR’s vice president, and only three months later he became president.

FDR’s death caught Truman by surprise. At 5:10 p.m., Vice President Truman strolled over to Speaker Sam Rayburn’s office. Everyone called his hideaway office “The Board of Education Room.” Located at the House end of the Capitol, it was where the speaker’s friends usually gathered at the end of the day for some camaraderie and libation. They called it “striking a blow for liberty.” Rayburn gave Truman the message to call the White House immediately. “Please come over,” he was told, “and come in through the main Pennsylvania Avenue entrance.” Harry’s face turned white. “Holy General Jackson,” he said, and raced to the White House, making it there by 5:25. In Mrs. Roosevelt’s study, she gave him the grim news. “Harry,” she said “the president is dead.”

Truman, stunned into silence, finally managed to choke out, “Is there anything I can do for you?” To which Eleanor replied, “No, Harry. But is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now.” The next day, Truman’s first full day as President, was Friday the 13th of April.

Harry Truman had been content as Senator Truman, the gentleman from Missouri. He knew that as vice president he was only a heartbeat away from the presidency and now that fear had become a reality. But, Truman, who always thought himself unworthy of such an awesome responsibility, tackled the job with his usual gusto. And, luckily for America, he was in the right place at the right time.

FDR is still considered one of the greatest Presidents by present-day historians, and in 1945 he was certainly a tough act to follow. But Harry Truman took the reins of government like no one believed he would. Regarded as a political hack by Washington power brokers, Truman soon proved his outstanding ability to lead.

One of Truman’s first statements to the press: “Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don’t know whether you’ve ever had a load of hay fall on you, but I feel like the stars, the moon, and all the planets have fallen on me.”

“Good luck, Mr. President,” one of the reporters called out.

Harry Truman responded with a heavy sigh, “Wish you hadn’t called me that.”

The man from Independence, Missouri, was very different from the patrician Roosevelt. He believed in telling it like it is and was often reprimanded by Mrs. Truman for his peppery language. Harry called his wife the boss and valued her advice. Even Truman’s mom knew him as a contrary mule. When he called her one day, she warned him, “Now you behave yourself up there, Harry.”

But Truman had a mind of his own and he tolerated no nonsense. During a phone call with former Secretary of Commerce Jessie Jones, the President said, “I’ve sent John Snyder’s name into the Senate for confirmation as federal loan administrator.”

“Did the President make that appointment before he died?” Jones asked.

“No,” replied Truman with emphasis, “he made it just now.”

It was no accident that Harry Truman adopted “The Buck Stops Here” as his own motto. The responsibility of the presidency was his and his alone, and he showed the world what he could do. Truman impressed the nation and foreign dignitaries as a simple, unpretentious, down-to-earth man with no expectation of entering the history books as a great president. Truman was, however, a decisive leader. When he made up his mind, he followed through no matter the consequences. His decision to fire General Douglas MacArthur, though controversial, is an example of something Truman felt he had to do. Asked how he felt after reaching the decision to fire the World War II hero, he replied, “I fixed a sandwich, had a glass of warm milk, and got a good night’s sleep.” He added, “I fired General MacArthur because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the President. I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son-of-a-bitch, although he was, but that’s not against the law for generals.”

“The American people can always see through a counterfeit. It sometimes takes a little time, but eventually they can always spot one,” he said. Truman fiercely believed in the Constitution as the law of the land and he feared that America would lose its innocence if he allowed his generals to run all over him. When he fired MacArthur, he learned he needn’t fear that. Truman thought highly of General George C. Marshal and General Omar Bradley, but the rest didn’t impress him. And he found it very difficult to say anything good about Dwight D. Eisenhower. He felt that Bradley and Marshal were great men, and would be great men no matter what they did. President Truman considered Ike rude and obnoxious. He said Eisenhower had a reputation for being an easygoing fellow, but he wasn’t. “He is one of the most difficult people I have ever encountered in my lifetime. I am told that once he was in the White House he treated his staff worse than a bunch of enlisted men.”

At Ike’s inaugural, he wanted to treat the President the way MacArthur did at Wake Island. But Truman was president until the swearing in and wouldn’t stand for it. Ike had wanted the President to pick him up at the Statler Hotel and take him to the inauguration. Truman said, “A thing like that had never happened before in American history and it indicated to me that not only didn’t he know about American history, but he didn’t have anyone around who did either.” Ike finally arrived at the White House to pick up Truman, but he wouldn’t get out of the car. Truman was forced to meet him in the vehicle. “It was shameful and there wasn’t much conversation on the way to the Capitol,” said Truman.

The ride was described in Truman’s book Mr. Citizen: “The journey in the parade down Pennsylvania Avenue was quite restrained as far as the occupants of the car were concerned. We began our trip in silence, then Ike volunteered to inform me, ‘I did not attend your inauguration in 1948 out of consideration for you, because if I had been present, I would have drawn attention away from you.’” Truman ended the discussion by pointing out that if he had sent for him, Ike would have been there.

The rest of the journey continued in silence. Later that day, just before the swearing-in ceremony, Ike and Truman were sitting in the Sergeant-of-Arms’s office in the Capitol waiting to be escorted to the inauguration platform. Suddenly, General Eisenhower turned to Truman and said, “I wonder who is responsible for my son, John, being ordered to Washington from Korea. I wonder who is trying to embarrass me.” Truman answered, “The President of the United States ordered your son to attend your inauguration. The President of the United States thought it was right and proper for your son to witness the swearing in of his father as President, and if you think somebody was trying to embarrass you with this order, then the President assumes full responsibility.” The president later confided to friends, “I don’t see how a country can produce such men as Robert E. Lee, John Pershing, George C. Marshal and Omar Bradley and, at the same time, produce Custers, Pattons, MacArthurs and Eisenhowers.”

Harry Truman was a loyal man, sometimes to a fault. And no one who had anything derogatory to say about his family escaped his ire. When Paul Hume of The Washington Post criticized first daughter, Margaret, on her debut as a professional singer, the president wrote him a letter that has since become a famous example of the president’s colorful tongue. “The next time that we meet, Mr. Hume,” Truman wrote, “you will need a new nose, a beefsteak for your eye and supporter below.” Truman loved using the word “manure” where ever he could slide it in. Once asked why she allowed him to use such language, Mrs. Truman replied that it took her twenty years just to get him to use that word.

Second only to Eisenhower in Harry Truman’s low regard was Congressman Richard Nixon. Truman loathed Nixon because Nixon was responsible for a McCarthy communist witch-hunt being mounted against him. The President’s response to the allegations was simple and to the point. “If I am a traitor, the United States is in a helluva shape.” About his accuser he said, “Nixon was a two-faced, goddamn liar.” Several years later, former President Harry Truman was invited to speak at a small college in my hometown. After his talk, Vince Gaughan, my political mentor, and I went to a very small private reception in Truman’s honor. I was able to ask him if he still felt the same way about Nixon. He smiled and said, “Son, always remember what a three-time loser is.”

“What’s that, Mr. President?” I asked.

“That’s a pregnant prostitute, driving down the street in an Edsel wearing a Nixon button.” Interestingly enough, this happened well before the Watergate scandal captured the headlines. I have never forgotten that day and I never will.

Harry Truman was often heard to say, “With Bess at my side, I can do anything.” Mrs. Truman was a grand lady in her own right, who took great delight in her husband and family. She once related a story about the couple taking a steamship vacation to Hawaii after Eisenhower’s inauguration. They were to have dinner with George Killian, the head of the steamship company. They arrived in the right San Francisco neighborhood, but the wrong address. Mrs. Truman recounted, “Harry rang the bell and a man answered who looked very Republican. ‘Does Mr. Killian live here?’ Harry asked. ‘No,’ said the man, then gave my husband a closer look and said, ‘By the way, I hope your feelings won’t be hurt, but you look exactly like Harry Truman.’ Harry responded, ‘I hope your feelings won’t be hurt either, because I am Harry Truman.’”

Mrs. Truman never let her extensive calendar of public activities interfere with her devotion to Harry and their only daughter, Margaret. Both parents doted on their child and she returned their affection wholeheartedly. The closeness of the family prompted the White House staff to nickname them “The Three Musketeers.”

Bess Wallace Truman had no love for the position of First Lady or the publicity that necessarily surrounded it. She was a reserved woman, very shy and very much the product of her small-town southern background. She was a very formal lady, which sometimes made her seem cold and forbidding. By Victorian tradition, the names of women like Bess were only permitted to appear in the newspaper three times in their lives: to announce her birth, to announce her marriage, and to announce her death. Despite this intense dislike of the spotlight, Bess Truman carried out her duties as First Lady with a dignity that soon garnered the public’s respect. She personally greeted visitors to the White House, christened ships and planes, opened bazaars, attended luncheons and hosted receptions and state dinners. She shook so many hands that she required physical therapy after social functions.

Mrs. Truman was the first First Lady to take on the job of bookkeeping for the White House. She tried to run the White House like a business and began by cutting out the daily breakfast for the “sleep out” employees. Mrs. Truman paid careful attention to the menus and made sure that food was carefully prepared. She believed that the refreshments for all social functions should be prepared in the White House; even the teas that were attended by thousands of people.

In the midst of one formal reception for officials of the federal government, the President heard a chandelier above his head in the blue room make an unnatural tinkling. An investigation soon showed that the floor of the second-floor oval study was in bad condition. Structurally, the White House was about to collapse. The only part of the original mansion found to be solid was the old outer wall. The President and his family moved into Blair House, the nation’s guest house for foreign dignitaries across the street from the White House. The job of restoring the White House and making it safe for future presidents required five million dollars and three years to complete.

The move to Blair House meant that social activities during the President’s second term in office would have to be curtailed. The obligatory state dinners were held in one of Washington’s hotels, usually the Mayflower. A whole series of parties were often necessary where one would have sufficed. But the Trumans handled the problem with grace, even inaugurating a series of parties for the wounded war veterans still being treated at military hospitals around Washington. The social highlight of the second Truman administration was the 1951 visit of Princess Elizabeth, then heir to the throne of Great Britain, and her husband Prince Philip. It was not easy to accommodate royalty in the temporary White House. Mrs. Truman and her staff managed it beautifully, right down to a full state dinner.

The Trumans brought both simplicity and panache to the White House. While Harry Truman will certainly be considered one of the great American presidents, Bess was an integral part of that success. Truman wrote after his retirement, “I hope someday someone will take the time to evaluate the true role of the wife of a President and to assess the many burdens she has to bear and contributions she makes.”

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