Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure
The True Story of a Great American Road Trip
By Matthew Algeo
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2009 Matthew Algeo
All rights reserved.
Washington, D.C., Inauguration Day, 1953
On January 20, 1953 — his last day in the White House — Harry Truman awoke at five-thirty, as usual. He skipped his customary morning walk and, after breakfast, attended to the final business of his presidency. His last official act was the signing of a letter to James A. Campbell, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees, on the occasion of the seventieth anniversary of the federal civil service system. (The system was instituted after one of Truman's unlucky predecessors, James Garfield, was assassinated by Charles Guiteau, the proverbial "disappointed office seeker.") In the letter, Truman decried what he called "recent reckless attacks" on civil servants, referring to Republican charges that the federal bureaucracy was infested with communists.
At 8:45, the president began saying good-bye to the White House staff, bounding from room to room, shaking hands with every stenographer, cook, maid, doorman, secretary, mailroom clerk, and telephone operator. The good-byes were heartfelt. Few presidents were as beloved by the White House help. Truman remembered their birthdays. He called them when they were sick. "He has been a wonderful guy to work for," one unidentified White House employee told a reporter that day. "You just wanted to do things for him."
Around eleven o'clock, Truman retired to the Red Room. An eighteenth-century French clock on the mantelpiece loudly ticked off the seconds as Truman and his wife, Bess, waited for his successor to arrive. The Trumans had invited Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower to join them inside the White House for coffee before riding to the inauguration. It was a tradition that stretched back nearly 150 years, to 1809, when Madison called on Jefferson. It wasn't always convivial or comfortable, particularly when the presidents were from different parties, but it symbolized, palpably, the peaceful and democratic transfer of power.
Awaiting Eisenhower, Truman's emotions must have been mixed. The two men had once been cordial, even friendly. Truman had admired Eisenhower, the general who'd done so much to win the war that Truman had unexpectedly inherited as commander in chief. When Eisenhower announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination early in 1952, Truman was effusive, notwithstanding Ike's party affiliation. Eisenhower was "a grand man," Truman told reporters soon after Ike's announcement. "I am just as fond of General Eisenhower as I can be."
But the presidential campaign had soured their relationship. At a campaign stop in Wisconsin, Eisenhower had redacted from his speech a tribute to General George Marshall, who had served Truman as secretary of state and, later, as secretary of defense. Marshall, who would win the Nobel Peace Prize later that year, was a favorite target of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who called him all but a traitor for the "loss of China" to Mao's communist forces. Eisenhower apparently expunged the tribute to avoid alienating McCarthy in his home state. (Unbeknownst to Ike, an unedited copy of the speech had been distributed to reporters beforehand.) When Truman, who considered Marshall closer to God than most men, heard this, he was apoplectic. In Utica, New York, Truman, campaigning for the Democratic candidate, Adlai Stevenson, told a crowd, "I had never thought the man who is now the Republican candidate would stoop so low." Privately, Truman called Eisenhower a "coward" for kowtowing to McCarthy.
Truman and Eisenhower had even had a hat spat: Eisenhower wanted to wear a homburg to his swearing in. Truman thought the occasion befitted a more formal top hat, but, conceding it was Ike's prerogative to choose the headgear for his inauguration, he wore a homburg. (John F. Kennedy would turn the tables on Eisenhower eight years later. JFK donned a silk top hat, forcing Ike to wear one too. Since then the presidential hat wars have abated markedly.)
At eleven-thirty, the president-elect's limousine finally pulled up to the White House. Ike sent word inside that he and Mamie would not be joining the Trumans for coffee. Tradition be damned: Ike didn't want to step foot inside the executive mansion until he was the executive. It was a snub, plain and simple, a "shocking moment," according to the newsman Eric Sevareid, who was there. Truman was furious, but he walked outside and greeted Eisenhower with all the faux warmth he could muster. "Truman was gracious," Sevareid told Truman biographer David McCullough. "He showed his superiority by what he did."
Truman joined Eisenhower in an open limousine, a huge black Lincoln, for the short ride to the Capitol. Their wives (and the Trumans' daughter, Margaret) rode behind them in a separate car. Truman and Eisenhower smiled and waved to the crowds lining Pennsylvania Avenue, but barely spoke to each other.
After a ride that must have seemed much longer than the two miles it actually was, the limousine pulled up to the east side of the Capitol, where a temporary platform had been constructed for the inauguration ceremonies. Truman climbed up to the dais and was seated in a plush leather chair just behind the podium.
Eisenhower's running mate, Richard Nixon, was sworn in first. While repeating the oath, Nixon failed to repeat the word support when he was supposed to swear to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States." The omission was barely noticed. At twelve-thirty — a half-hour late — Eisenhower was sworn in by Chief Justice Fred Vinson. (Vinson had been appointed by Truman, and he is still the last chief justice appointed by a Democrat.) Eisenhower was now president of the United States. Truman, as he had put it in his farewell address five days earlier, was now "a plain, private citizen."
After a brief prayer, Eisenhower began his inaugural address. "My fellow citizens," he intoned. "The world and we have passed the midway point of a century of continuing challenge. We sense with all our faculties that forces of good and evil are massed and armed and opposed as rarely before in history...."
Truman slumped in his chair ever so slightly. He later admitted he'd found it difficult to focus on Eisenhower's words. His mind began to wander. Perhaps his thoughts turned back to the summer of 1922. Back then — a little more than thirty years earlier — he was thirty-eight, married just three years, and living in his mother-in-law's house in Independence, Missouri. The haberdashery that he had opened with his friend Eddie Jacobson in nearby Kansas City had failed earlier that year, and it would take him fifteen years to pay off the debts. He was, for all intents and purposes, unemployed. "Broke and in a bad way" — that's how Harry summed up that summer many years later.
It was an old army buddy named Jimmy Pendergast who came to Truman's rescue. Jimmy's uncle, Tom Pendergast, was Kansas City's political boss, and he was looking for a good candidate to run for eastern judge of Jackson County, a position akin to county commissioner. Jimmy recommended Truman. As a Baptist, a Mason, and a former farmer, he fit the bill perfectly. Running as the "good roads" candidate, Truman won the election that fall.
In 1934 the Pendergast machine helped Truman get elected to the U.S. Senate. For years he was known derisively as "the senator from Pendergast," but he eventually distinguished himself by chairing a commission that uncovered waste in military spending.
At the 1944 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, party leaders decided to kick Vice President Henry Wallace off the ticket. They regarded Wallace, a plant geneticist who dabbled in mysticism and astrology, as far too liberal, something of a loose cannon, and, well, a little strange. Truman, who always insisted he never campaigned for the job, was chosen to replace Wallace, largely because the other contenders were either too liberal or too conservative. "I had never even seen Truman in my life before he was nominated," remembered Democratic National Committee Chairman Edward J. Flynn. "All I knew was that no one could do Roosevelt any good, and it was a question of who would do him the least harm." Franklin Roosevelt, who didn't even bother to attend the convention, went along with the choice, though he complained he hardly knew the senator. Truman's candidacy was, reporters joked, another "Missouri Compromise." Bess Truman, who already thought the family was spending far too much time away from Independence, was not happy. After the convention, Harry, Bess, and Margaret drove home. The atmosphere inside the car, Margaret later recalled, was "close to arctic." It was the last long drive Harry and Bess would take for many years.
A month later, Roosevelt invited Truman to the White House for lunch. Truman, who hadn't even seen the president in a year, was shocked by his appearance. "I had no idea he was in such a feeble condition," Truman confided to a friend. "In pouring cream in his tea, he got more cream in the saucer than he did in the cup." In photographs taken of the two men that day, Roosevelt is hunched and haggard, with dark bags beneath his eyes. Truman is beaming, vibrant. It was hard to believe that Roosevelt was only two years older than Truman.
The Roosevelt-Truman ticket won the 1944 election in a landslide. Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945. Truman had been vice president eighty-two days. Apart from cabinet meetings, he had met with Roosevelt just twice.
Truman would win the White House in his own right in 1948, famously upsetting Thomas E. Dewey and most political prognosticators.
His presidency had encompassed some of the most monumental events of the twentieth century: World War II, the founding of the United Nations, McCarthyism, Korea, the Cold War.
Sitting on that dais on that winter's day in 1953, the summer of 1922 must have seemed like a very long time ago to Harry Truman.
Eisenhower droned on: "Freedom is pitted against slavery; lightness against the dark ..."
Truman's mind wandered still. Perhaps he pondered his uncertain future. He was sixty-eight now, but quite hale. On most mornings he still walked two miles before breakfast, at his old army pace of 120 steps per minute. And longevity was in his genes: his mother had lived to be ninety-four. (His father had died at sixty-two of complications from surgery for a hernia.) By any estimation, Harry Truman had a lot of life left.
But what to do with it? Truman, a student of history, well knew that ex- presidents often faded into obscurity, irrelevancy — or worse. There were notable exceptions, of course. After their presidential terms, John Quincy Adams was elected to the House of Representatives and William H. Taft was appointed chief justice. But, more often, an ex- president's life was one of disappointment and disillusionment. Martin Van Buren and Theodore Roosevelt both tried to regain the presidency without success. John Tyler was elected to Congress — the Confederate Congress. He died before he could take office, but most Northerners considered him a traitor, and his passing was barely noted in Northern newspapers. Franklin Pierce, a raging alcoholic, reportedly said there was nothing to do but "get drunk" after the presidency. This he did with astonishing abandon, until it killed him, though hardly anybody noticed.
Herbert Hoover, seated just a few feet from Truman on the dais that day, was the only other living member of the ex-presidents club. After his humiliating defeat in 1932, Hoover had lived in political isolation — until his career was resuscitated by Truman himself.
Hoover, at least, was rich. He'd made a fortune in mining before going into politics. At the time, ex-presidents received no pension, and some had died broke. Thomas Jefferson was forced to sell his beloved library to make ends meet. James Monroe was so destitute he had to move in with his daughter and her husband. Ulysses S. Grant, his life savings lost in a swindle, had just eighty dollars in the bank at one point. He was saved from penury only by selling his memoirs to Mark Twain. "They just ... let them starve to death," Truman complained of the country's treatment of its ex-presidents soon after he left the White House.
Truth was, Harry Truman didn't know what to do with the rest of his life. He had no specialized training, nothing more than a high school diploma. (He is the last president without a postsecondary degree.) There was speculation that he might make another run for office, perhaps as a senator or governor back in Missouri. He could even run for the White House again if he wanted to: he was the last president eligible to serve more than two terms. Theoretically, anyway, in four years he could be standing once more in the very spot where Eisenhower now stood.
One thing was certain, though: Harry Truman needed money. He wasn't destitute, but he was far from rich, and he knew his post-presidential expenses would be considerable. He had already rented an office in Kansas City, and he would need at least two assistants just to answer the mail. Besides, he felt obligated to maintain a certain standard of living, if only to uphold the dignity of the office he had just vacated.
Yet his only income would be a pension for his service as an officer in France during World War I. That pension amounted to $111.96 a month, after taxes. Ironically, he did not receive credit for his nearly eight years as commander in chief.
Truman had come to the presidency with little personal wealth. When he took office, the salary was seventy-five thousand dollars a year, but out of that he was expected to pay all White House expenses. One year he netted just forty-two hundred dollars. In 1949 the salary was raised to a hundred thousand dollars plus fifty thousand for expenses, but this was still barely enough to cover the growing cost of running the White House, and Truman was able to save little. A few months before leaving office, Truman had met with Martin Stone, a lawyer–turned–television mogul, to discuss his post-presidential job prospects. "The president was frank that he'd be needing money when he returned to his modest home," Stone recalled.
Finally, Eisenhower concluded his inaugural address: "The peace we seek ... is nothing less than the practice and fulfillment of our whole faith among ourselves and in our dealings with others. ... This is the work that awaits us all, to be done with bravery, with charity, and with prayer to Almighty God. My citizens, thank you." The speech had lasted nineteen minutes.
A wave of applause rolled toward the dais, snapping Truman out of his reverie.
After the ceremony, the Trumans were driven to the home of Dean Acheson, Harry's erstwhile secretary of state, for a farewell luncheon. As his driver negotiated the teeming Inauguration Day streets of Washington, the new ex-president experienced his first taste of civilian life: the long black White House limousine obeyed all traffic signals. It was the first time in nearly eight years that Harry Truman had stopped for a red light.
After lunch, the Trumans stopped by the home of Harry's longtime personal secretary, Matthew Connelly, where Harry took his customary afternoon nap. Around 4:00 P.M., they were driven to Union Station to catch the train back home to Independence.
At the station, Harry and Bess bade farewell to their Secret Service detail. Just as they received no pensions, ex-presidents at that time received no government-financed bodyguards. The Trumans were no longer, in Secret Service parlance, protectees. They were on their own now.
The Trumans would ride home in the presidential railcar, the Ferdinand Magellan, which was attached to the end of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad's regular National Limited. Truman had undertaken his historic whistle-stop campaign on board the Ferdinand Magellan in 1948. The car was now at Eisenhower's disposal, of course, but the new president had offered it to the Trumans in an effort to mend fences. Truman appreciated the gesture, but for the time being, anyway, he kept the hatchet very much unburied.
Unexpectedly, a crowd of over three thousand had gathered at Union Station to see the Trumans off: senators, members of Congress, supreme court justices, generals, admirals, old friends, foreign diplomats, ordinary Washingtonians. They sang "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" and "Auld Lang Syne." "Good-bye, Mr. President," they shouted. "Good-bye, Harry!" Many wept. Said prim Dean Acheson with uncharacteristic folksiness, "We're saying good-bye to the greatest guy that ever was." The Trumans were deeply moved by the impromptu going away party. "I can't adequately express my appreciation for what you are doing," Harry told the crowd from the rear platform of the Ferdinand Magellan. "I'll never forget it if I live to be a hundred — and that's just what I intend to do!" At six-thirty, the valves underneath the train hissed and the conductor called out, "All aboard." As the train slowly pulled out of the station, Harry and Bess stood waving from the back platform. They seemed reluctant for the moment to end. They kept waving as the train disappeared into the Washington night. "They've gone back to Missouri," a porter said wistfully as he watched the couple fade into darkness. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure by Matthew Algeo. Copyright © 2009 Matthew Algeo. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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