Eight Days With Harry Truman

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I can still see Harry and Bess Truman coming toward us across the crowded terminal of the Kansas City airport on that night in 1970, their eighty-six-year-old faces pinched and almost grim with concern. Then they saw their daughter, Margaret, walking safely beside me, and their worries vanished. Their smiles transformed them.

Introductions were swiftly accomplished. The Trumans already knew who I was and why I was there—to help Margaret on the research for her father’s biography.

I can still see Harry and Bess Truman coming toward us across the crowded terminal of the Kansas City airport on that night in 1970, their eighty-six-year-old faces pinched and almost grim with concern. Then they saw their daughter, Margaret, walking safely beside me, and their worries vanished. Their smiles transformed them.

Introductions were swiftly accomplished. The Trumans already knew who I was and why I was there—to help Margaret on the research for her father’s biography.

Within the hour we were ensconced in a small library in the broad-porched three-story white Victorian house on North Delaware Street in Independence where Mrs. Truman had spent much of her girlhood.

Truman insisted we had to christen Margaret’s literary venture with some bourbon and branch water, and I found myself with a rather dark brown glass in my hand. Truman gazed at me for a moment through his thick glasses and said: “Young man, there’s one more thing I need to know about you. Have you always been a Democrat?”

There was a twinkle in his eyes, but I sensed he was not entirely joking. Fortunately I was brought up in the bosom of the Democratic party, in a town famous for its ferocious politics—Jersey City. In our front hall, where many Irish-Americans displayed a print of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, my father hung a framed portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt. “Mr. President,” I replied, “as far as I know, no one in the family has ever voted anything but a straight ticket.”

“That’s what I wanted to hear!” Truman said, and all but knocked the glass out of my hand with a resounding clink. So began eight of the most remarkable days of my life.

Margaret and I spent our mornings and afternoons at the presidential library, plowing through the Truman papers. We had lunch and dinner with Mr. and Mrs. Truman each day and usually spent an extra hour or two after dinner, chatting in their tiny library. Although Truman declined a formal interview—he said that at eighty-six his memory was no longer reliable—we wanted to get his crystallized opinions on such big topics as Stalin, Roosevelt, the decision to drop the atomic bomb, the break with the Russians, the firing of General MacArthur.

But the topic that absorbed him most—the one he discussed with a passion amazing for a man his age—was the Presidency. He believed the American Presidency was the greatest office ever created by thinking men, and the key to his judgment of every President was the condition in which he left it. Party was irrelevant here. For Truman, the great Presidents were Washington, Jefferson, Polk (with whom he had a distant kinship), Lincoln, Grover Cleveland, and HST’s sentimental favorite, Woodrow Wilson.

All these men shared a common trait. They had strengthened the office—Washington by his forthright assumption of the control of foreign policy and his stern separation of the powers of the Presidency from the tentacles of Congress; Jefferson by his purchase of the Louisiana Territory, according to “strict constructionists” an unconstitutional act; Polk for annexing Texas and defending the decision in a victorious war; Lincoln for making the office the pivot on which the future of the nation swung; Cleveland for resisting what Truman regarded as the worst thing that could happen to the United States, congressional government. He did not mention reading Woodrow Wilson’s book of that title, which brilliantly dissects this particular political disease; Truman seemed to have absorbed the idea by a kind of political osmosis.

 

Truman did not have a high collective opinion of senators and representatives. He recognized their constitutional role, of course, and he admired many individual congressmen, such as Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, but he deplored their tendency to encroach on the powers of the Presidency. His bête noire was William FuIbright of Arkansas, who suggested, when the Republicans won control of both houses of Congress in the 1946 midterm elections, that Truman appoint Sen. Arthur Vandenberg (the Republican majority leader) Secretary of State and then resign so the Republican majority in Congress could also run the executive branch of the government. “Fulbright proved that you didn’t need brains to be a Rhodes scholar,” Truman said.

He recalled his first days in the U.S. Senate, when he regarded everyone around him with awe. Then one friendly solon told him: “Harry, for the first six months you’ll wonder how you got here. For the rest of your term you’ll wonder how the rest of them got here!” He was, Truman said with a grin, “one hundred percent right.”