The Temper Thing

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One president who seemed genuinely unable to contain his anger was Harry Truman, and it cost him. It was one thing when Truman chewed out the Soviet ambassador (supposedly telling him, when he protested such treatment, “Carry out your agreements and you won’t be spoken to that way!”) or when he fired nasty barbs in the direction of Bernard Baruch, John L. Lewis, or Drew Pearson. It was another when he accused the Marine Corps of having “a propaganda machine that is almost equal to Stalin’s” or when, in December 1950, he wrote an almost comically nasty letter to the Washington Post ’s music critic, Paul Hume. “Some day I hope to meet you,” Truman warned Hume, who had dared to give his daughter Margaret’s recital a bad review. “When that happens you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!”

Never before had a sitting President threatened to knee a music critic in the groin. This was just the sort of outburst we now cherish about Harry Truman, but it did not go over so well at the time, once the Washington News printed the letter on its front page. The United States was then enmeshed in the worst stage of the Korean War, our troops being pushed back by the Chinese onslaught, and millions of worried American mothers and fathers were in no mood to sympathize over Margaret Truman’s professional travails. Letters poured into the White House, denouncing Truman as “uncouth,” “common,” and even mentally unstable.

Yet Paul Hume himself had tried to keep the letter from being published and was cognizant of the fact that Truman had recently endured the death of his lifelong friend and press secretary, Charlie Ross. Hume announced that he had voted for Truman and supported him still, adding, “I can only say that a man suffering the loss of a friend and carrying the burden of the present world crisis ought to be indulged in an occasional outburst of temper.”

What better proof that Americans will tolerate the hottest temper, so long as we believe it is wielded on our behalf?