Last week was Harry Truman’s birthday.
He’s been dead for almost fifty years, so it wasn’t much of a party.
I sure miss him, though.
Oh, Harry. I miss you so much.
What I liked best about him was that he made himself more than he should have been. For instance, he was born in Missouri. Two of his relatives were in the Confederate Army. His mother lived through the Civil War and when she came to visit him in the White House, she refused to sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom. Yet Harry was the president who desegregated the military and federal employment, and did more for civil rights than any president since Abraham Lincoln.
Another example is his military service. He was in his thirties when America entered the first World War, long past the draft age, and he had terrible, disqualifying eyesight. He tested at 20/50 in his right eye and 20/400 in his left. In other words, he was legally blind. Harry flunked his physical, then memorized the eye chart so he passed the second time. He was a corporal in the Missouri National Guard, but by the time he got to France (with a half-dozen pairs of spare eyeglasses), he was a captain and in charge of an artillery detachment. One of his proudest accomplishments was not losing one man, even though the unit was in fierce fighting and fired some of the last rounds of the war. Something his men remembered in their first battle was a nighttime bombardment from the Germans. A group of guys started to run - possibly heading home to Missouri. Before the war, Harry had worked for a short time as a payroll clerk in a railroad camp, and he stopped the retreat in its tracks by unleashing a bombardment of his own, using every word he’d learned from his time with those railroad workers.
After Harry Truman became Senator Truman, no one expected much of him. However, he applied some common sense insights to waste and fraud in the military build-up before WWII, and ended up saving the taxpayer the equivalent of 210 billion dollars. And no one knows how many American soldiers he saved from faulty equipment in the process.
He became Vice-President because there were concerns that President Roosevelt wouldn’t live through his term, and someone would be needed to hold the fort before the next election. President Roosevelt only served 82 days before dying. He and Truman met only twice before Harry became President. In fact, Stalin knew about the atomic bomb before Vice President Truman. Once again, no one expected much of him as President, but he saw the Allies through to victory, helped found NATO and the United Nations, and pushed through the Marshall Plan, basically saving Europe from starvation in the post war years.
In the midst of everything, he won a presidential election considered the biggest comeback ever. And he did it by traveling the country giving speeches from the back of a train. It was in Iowa, speaking to a crowd of farmers, that he gave advice that’s still fresh today. “How many times will you be hit in the head,” he said, “until you turn around to see who’s holding the stick.”
Harry was known for having a little trouble with his mouth. He gave a talk to a group of prominent female gardeners and, as an old farmer, mentioned the value of manure several times. One of the women told his wife, “You should really try to get the president to stop referring to manure so often.”
Bess replied, “You have no idea how long it took me to get him to say manure.”
When President Truman retired during the Korean War, he had dismal ratings with the public. No one expected much of him in retirement, but he showed us how a public servant should act. He created the first presidential library with his collected papers, donated to the public. His only income was a small pension, $112/month, from his years in the National Guard. He turned down all offers for corporate sponsorship. “I’d have taken the jobs if they wanted Harry Truman, but what they wanted was the president of the United States, and that isn’t for sale.” He was compensated quite well for his memoirs, but paid 66% of it back in income taxes. Instead of jetting around the country giving speeches for big bucks, he worked at an office in his library every day. He quite often led the tours himself, particularly if there were school children involved.
Harry and Bess traveled to England to be presented an honorary degree from Oxford. The London Telegraph wrote, “He is the living and kicking symbol of everything that everyone likes best about America.”
Happy birthday, Harry. I really miss you.
Copyright 2020 Brent Olson