I’m reading a fascinating biography right now: “Truman” by David McCullough. Harry Truman is one of those Presidents that seems to have gotten pretty short-changed by the writers of history.
Or maybe it’s by the writers of history textbooks and teachers of history…
At any rate, I am really struck by a couple of different facets of Truman. One, he may be — though I can’t say this for sure — the last “ordinary man” to have been President. LBJ was once a high school teacher, but his Congressional career was 30 years before inheriting the Presidency, so I don’t know how much of his life could credibly be considered “ordinary.” Lot of lawyers, couple legacy Presidents, but nobody with the diverse and “common” background of Harry Truman.
Wonder why politicians tend to not really “get” you? Truman might have. Grew up on, worked on, and was responsible for a farm; he had a business which failed; and, for much of his adult life, money was never something that he had in abundance. In fact, even as a Senator, he was pinching pennies. I bet if you looked at the general wealth of the 100 men and women who populate the Senate these days, you would find very few who ever give a second thought to an expenditure.
The second thing that jumps out at me about Truman was, as you might expect, his skill set. Specifically, he was an accomplished piano player, even, on occasion, sitting down at the keyboard to play along with one of the musical guests at the White House, or help out a performer by turning pages for him or her. I don’t know how many really good musicians have ever lived in the White House, but that seems to me to be an immediately endearing quality in the man.
But, thirdly, the thing which has jumped out at me the most reading this is just how much things have changed. For instance, Truman, a Democrat, loved the Jefferson ideal of a nation of farmers. “When (a country) is made up of factories and large cities it soon becomes depressed and makes classes among people.” Not exactly how electoral politics plays out these days.
When Truman decided to make civil rights a major plank of his Presidency, his strongest opposition came — not surprisingly — from the South. From the *Democrats* in the South. It was one of his boldest political moves, one that easily could have cost him the election. And, though it wasn’t until 11 years after he left office that the Civil Rights Act came to fruition, the tectonic shift in American politics traces back to Truman: the South, generally, is now staunchly Republican.
However, not everything changes. The most intractable, vexing problem a year or so before his re-election campaign was the issue of Palestine, and how — or if — the U.S. should support a Jewish state within Palestine. And every President since then has struggled with the many long-standing issues that have followed.
And if you think politics is a strange, fickle beast, you, like me, should take heart from the anecdotes surrounding the Potsdam Conference. One of three major strategy sessions between the American leaders, Churchill and Stalin, this one took place after the war in Europe was concluded, but while the hostilities with Japan were still hot. And, as importantly, at the exact same time as we were conducting our first test of the atomic bomb. Truman consulted with Churchill about its use against Japan, and they were in complete agreement. And then Churchill had to leave the conference … because he had lost his job.
Thank you, Mr. Prime Minister. Nice job winning the war and saving civilization. Next!
Don’t get too invested in the passions of the moment — some of them change, some of them don’t. But if you ground yourself in real things, you have will have the capacity to manage the fancies of fate.
Michael Alcorn is a teacher and writer who lives in Arvada with his wife and three children. His new novel, “Charon’s Blade,” is available at Amazon.com, on Kindle, or through MichaelJAlcorn.com.” His opinions are not necessarily those of Colorado Community Media.
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