Truman and Pendergast

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No portion of the political career of Harry S. Truman was more fraught with drama than his relationship with Thomas J. Pendergast. In one of their earliest meetings, the two men were momentarily at odds after Truman, who was then presiding judge of Jackson County, gave a $400,000 road contract to a construction company in South Dakota, and Pendergast, the boss of Kansas City, wasn't very happy about it. He had someone else in mind for the contract. Their association thus had its disagreements, but their common interest in politics was enough to establish a long-lasting relationship.

In 1934, after considering fourteen other men, Pendergast sponsored Truman for the Senate. Although Truman had often cooperated with Pendergast on patronage issues, he had never involved himself in the illegalities that would eventually destroy the Pendergast machine. In fact, Truman had no idea how deeply the Boss had engaged in corruption in his personal affairs, as well as in managing the government of Kansas City. When the Boss was sent to Leavenworth for tax evasion in 1939, Truman was astonished.

Despite Truman's honesty, his relationship with Pendergast almost caused his defeat during the Missouri senatorial primary in August 1940. The main challenger for Truman's Senate seat was the ambitious governor of Missouri, Lloyd C. Stark, who after destroying Truman's sponsor, the Pendergast machine, denounced Truman as "the Pendergast senator." Behind the governor was President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom Stark turned against Truman. Roosevelt wanted Missouri's electoral votes in his forthcoming bid for a third term, and he believed that Stark could give them to him.

Because of the stigma of Truman's Pendergast connection, the 1940 Democratic primary was the tightest election in his entire political career. He won by fewer than eight thousand votes. In Truman and Pendergast, Robert H. Ferrell masterfully presents Truman's struggle to keep his Senate seat without the aid of Pendergast and despite Stark's enlistment of Roosevelt against him. Ferrell shows that Truman won the election in his typical fashion—going directly to the people, speaking honestly and like one of them.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Harry S. Truman and Thomas J. Pendergast met in 1927, when Truman was a Missouri judge with political ambitions and Pendergast was the boss of a powerful political machine in Kansas City. Over the years, Boss Tom would help Truman achieve many of his political goals. But as Truman rose to national prominence, his association with the corrupt Pendergast machine threatened to end his political career. FDR even made moves to have Truman defeated in his bid for reelection to the U.S. Senate in 1940. Ferrell (history, emeritus, Indiana Univ.; The Dying President: Franklin D. Roosevelt 1944-1945, LJ 3/1/98) sorts through the complex relationship between these men and demonstrates how Truman had both to live down and rise above his association with Boss Pendergast. This fine work sheds light on a part of Truman's past full of conflict and contradictions. A valuable addition to the literature on Truman the man and the politician.--Michael A. Genovese, Loyola Marymount Univ., Los Angeles Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Michael Barone
...a great American political story rescued from the dusty shelves of archives by a first-class scholar.
The Weekly Standard
Kirkus Reviews
A study of Truman's career from his 1922 start in politics through his surprising reelection to the US Senate in 1940, focusing on his relationship with the corrupt Pendergast political machine that ruled Kansas City, Mo. Presidential scholar Ferrell (History emeritus/Indiana Univ.; The Presidency of Calvin Coolidge, 1998, etc.) depicts Thomas J. Pendergast finding many electable assets in the feisty Truman after appointing him to a rural office not directly involved in the city machine. Honest, principled, hardworking, and optimistic, Truman was a WWI veteran who had soldiered with Pendergast's nephew; he was also a Mason, a Baptist, a farmer, a businessman, and a regular guy with many loyal friends. Popular with the electorate, plain Harry performed well in his political jobs while saving taxpayer funds. He was, however, taken by surprise when Boss Pendergast was sent to prison in 1939 for tax evasion. (See The Kansas City Investigation, p. 775.) After his 1935 election to the US Senate, Truman had to overcome claims by his opponents that he was "the senator from Pendergast." One of Ferrell's anecdotes shows the new senator ("the country boy") being importuned by President Roosevelt (the sophisticated aristocrat) to change his vote in favor of FDR's compliant choice for Senate majority leader, Alben W. Barkley; Truman refused and voted for opposing candidate Pat Harrison. The "Comeback Kid" of his time, Truman overcame his underdog status in a tough campaign by going to the people and traveling extensively to win reelection to the Senate in 1940—tactics he would employ with similar success in the presidential race of 1948. Enhanced by fresh research, this is a valuablebehind-the-scenes account of the rise of a plainspoken, no-nonsense, ordinary man to extraordinary levels of power and accomplishment.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780826212252
  • Publisher: University of Missouri Press
  • Publication date: 4/30/1999
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 176
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert H. Ferrell is Professor Emeritus of History at Indiana University in Bloomington. He is the author or editor of numerous books, including Collapse at Meuse-Argonne: The Failure of the Missouri-Kansas Division and Meuse-Argonne Diary: A Divison Commander in World War I, both available from the University of Missouri Press. Ferrell resides in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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