Thursday, May 8, is the birthday of Harry Truman. He is the greatest Missourian ever in the minds of many students of history, including some of the Republican faith.
He was born in 1884 in Lamar, Mo., and served as president from April 1945 to January 1953. Truman died in 1972.
He had been vice president for just 82 days when Franklin D. Roosevelt died. The Second World War in Europe ended in May 1945 and with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan in August 1945, the war in the Pacific ended.
Many things have been written about Truman, the man, the soldier in World War I, the county judge (commissioner), the senator, the president and the former president. Through all these phases in his life, one trait stood out — he was a humble man. Because he wore glasses, the toughness of the boy and man was not always clearly visible. As his daughter, Margaret, wrote: “As many another man was to find in the years to come, they discovered that no one pushed Harry Truman around.” He had been a farmer and a failed businessman. He courted his to-be-wife Bess for many years and was always true to her.
He was a tough field artillery captain in World War I and as commander in chief during the Korean War he had enough of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s insubordination, and he fired him.
Truman was a student of history. The story goes that while other boys were on the athletic fields, he was in the library reading. We don’t know if it’s true, but it was reported he read every book in the Independence library. He was a student of military history, perhaps moreso than any other president in our history.
The thing we have always admired about Truman was the number of tough decisions he made during his presidency. Certainly two of the toughest were the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan and deploying our troops in Korea when the North invaded the South in June 1950. Another was the reconstruction of Europe after WWII, with the help of a Republican who became his close friend, Herbert Hoover. Together they marshaled the forces to provide food to help starving Europeans.
Another is that he left the White House the way he came in — humble and without any more money or an estate assembled from gifts. He never used his status as a former president to make money. He turned down memberships on a number of corporate boards that would have brought him millions of dollars.
Many of Truman’s classic remarks have been read, reread and told thousands of times. What he said gave insight to his character. One of the best known, of course, is “the buck stops here” at his desk in the oval office in the White House. He didn’t avoid blame when he was at fault, or invent words and terms to divert blame, such as we have today. He was truthful, honest and he was a friend you could trust.
Some of Truman’s truisms:
“A good politician has had to be 75 percent ability and 25 percent actor, but I can well see the day when the reverse could be true.”
“If you can’t stand the heat you better get out of the kitchen.”
“If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”
“If you don’t have a sense of humor, you’re in a hell of a fix when you are president of the United States.”
“Children and dogs are as necessary to the welfare of this country as Wall Street and the railroads.”
“A man not honorable in his marital relations is not usually honorable in any other.”
“It’s a recession when your neighbor loses his job; it’s a depression when you lose yours.”
“I want peace and I’m willing to fight for it.”
“When you get to be president, there are those things, the honors, the 21-gun salutes, all those things. You have to remember it isn’t for you. It’s for the presidency.”
“All the president is, is a glorified public relations man who spends his time flattering, kissing and kicking people to get them to do what they are supposed to do anyway.”
“Liberty does not make all men perfect nor all society secure. But it has provided more solid progress and happiness and decency for more people than any other philosophy of government in history.”
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When Truman was a senator he visited Washington several times. Local Democrats on two occasions gave dinners for him at the old Commercial Hotel and at the Old Dutch Hotel. We had a brief conversation with him at the funeral of Congressman Clarence Cannon in Elberry in the 1960s. He always was approachable. The late publisher of The Missourian, James L. Miller, Sr., knew him well when Miller was a reporter for the Kansas City Star and Truman was the presiding judge (commissioner) of Jackson County.