The Truman Show: Harry’s view from the Great White Jail

Harry Truman was a common man who somehow became President of the United States.

With Franklin Roosevelt’s death in 1945, Vice President Harry Truman moved into the White House, or “the Great White Jail,” as he referred to it.

In contrast to the wealthy Roosevelt, Truman, originally from Independence, Mo., had seen a series of setbacks in his life. He had been made a captain in WW I, but was also a failed haberdasher and farmer, and did not see continued career success until venturing into Kansas City politics in his late 30s with the support of machine boss Tom Pendergast.

Twelve years later, he was seated in the U.S. Senate. A decade after that, he was dragged onto the presidential ticket with FDR. Truman initially resisted the idea of being the running mate, but Robert Farrell’s biography claims he was convinced through a scripted phone call to take the nomination. While Truman listened, Democratic national chairman Robert Hannegan called Roosevelt to discuss the vice presidential selection. After telling the president that Truman was a “contrary Missouri mule” in his reluctance to seek the nomination, FDR replied, “Well, tell him if he wants to break up the Democratic Party in the middle of a war (World War II), that’s his responsibility.” He then angrily ended the call.

Truman accepted the nomination.

Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945 from a cerebral hemorrhage. When informed by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, he asked if there was anything he could do for her. She famously replied, “Is there anything we can do for you? You’re the one in trouble now!” And with that, a plain-speaking, bankrupt businessman became the President of the United States.

Truman, throughout his journal entries and letters, comes across at times as prone to bouts of self-doubt. He uses “colorful” language routinely, folksy figures of speech, and common analogies. He seems so… normal. To illustrate, consider his quote to the press after being sworn in as President of the United States:

“Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don’t know if you fellas ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me what happened yesterday, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.”

Most presidents are supremely confident and would never say something like that. Truman was different.

Aside from perspective on the interesting historical time he presided over, Truman gives us a glimpse, more so than many other presidents, of how we might fare in these presidential situations. He’s very relatable.

Victory over the Nazis was wrapped up on May 8, 1945. In July, Truman travelled to Berlin to discuss post-war policy with the other heads of state of the Allied forces: Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin.

Truman wrote that he was nervous to meet these titans of global affairs. Once he arrived on July 15, Churchill was the first to phone him to arrange a meeting the next morning. Rather than me describe it, Truman does a much better job:

“I did for 11 AM this morning. He was on time to the dot. His daughter told (unclear) he had not been up so early in ten years! I’d been up for four and one half hours. We had a most pleasant conversation. He is a most charming and very clever person—meaning clever in the English, not the Kentucky sense. He gave me a lot of hooey about how great my country is and how much he loved Roosevelt and how he intended to love me, etc. etc.”

Truman remarks that the men had a drink for liberty, but Churchill brought the wrong brand of Scotch for Truman’s liking.

The next day, July 17, Stalin appeared in his doorway. He describes Stalin as straight-forward. “I can deal with Stalin. He is honest—but smart as hell.” So maybe he wasn’t the best judge of character, but he did view the Soviet Union in a post-war world with a more cautious eye than his predecessor had.

Through his writings, we also see a man devoted to his wife, despite her coldness and selfishness. In an American Experience documentary, the story is told that Truman, who was often alone in Washington, flew home to see his wife, Bess, and daughter Margaret for Christmas. The ground was covered in snow and the conditions were not ideal, but he wanted to see them. Upon his arrival in Independence, Mo., Bess yelled at him for being both late and reckless. Upon his return to “jail,” he wrote a letter asking her why, in a world full of people ready to shower him in niceties, the only person from whom he wanted appreciation and love could be so cruel. He never sent the letter.

And despite his status as the most powerful man on the planet, his mother-in-law never felt that he was good enough for her daughter, though he did live with her for many years after marriage.

In this day and age of the canned, robotic political candidate, Harry Truman is refreshing. His admissions of anxiety over his responsibilities, his folksy ways, and his inability to impress those closest to him, give us a real human perspective on life as president. While that may be terrifying and overwhelming at times, Truman shows us the force of the human spirit. He privately expressed fear over his leadership role, but he said countless times that the decisions were his to make and he would make them. Remember: the buck stopped with him. Truman reminds us that obstacles in our paths are ours to tackle and that success comes when we “give ‘em hell.”


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