I think of a king at nightfall…

To those who like arguing over presidential rankings, Truman continues to “climb the charts.”  I stumbled on an old obit of the president which I found eye-opening.  “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend!

…a poor boy from Independence who was steeped in history and was propelled, against his will, into some of the greatest challenges ever to confront a human being.” That is the myth, all right, but, except for the last twelve words, completely false.

…the Truman family was part of a distinctive American gentry or even rural aristocracy, invisible though that fact was to Truman’s Eastern colleagues later on, or to the national press.

Neither his family nor he was ever humble. A strong mother taught him to read before he was five. And from the start his taste in reading was revealing: the lives of great men.

The Kennedys invited musicians to the White House, people like Pablo Casals. But Truman could really play the piano, and not just the “Missouri Waltz.”

Harry S Truman, RIP

This article first appeared in the Jan. 19, 1973, issue of NATIONAL REVIEW.

By The Editors

So regularly do American presidents become mythologized, even when in office, that the process must reflect deep psychic needs which insist upon recreating the man in satisfying fictional form. Actually, John F. Kennedy was not self-denying and spartan, was not particularly energetic, was not artistic or intellectual, and was not an idealist; nor was Dwight Eisenhower a genial lobotomized Mr. Dick who, wandering in out of the pages of Dickens, managed the conquest of Europe and presided for eight years in the White House. But at particular moments in time the public needed “Ike” and “JFK” for reasons which may be adduced: The myth, however, bore little resemblance to the actual men themselves.

After thirteen years of charisma and hauteur under FDR, it was only natural that the desire should exist for a “common man” in the Presidency. And so there came into being the myth of Truman, nourished by his undistinguished appearance, and cultivated shrewdly — both consciously and unconsciously — by the man himself. It was a successful artistic creation, achieved in cooperation with the public, which then proceeded to approve of its handiwork in the election of 1948. Successful myth is a powerful political weapon. And like all great art, it has endured: “Nor did he,” wrote one eulogist the other day, “try to be anything other than what he was — a poor boy from Independence who was steeped in history and was propelled, against his will, into some of the greatest challenges ever to confront a human being.”

That is the myth, all right, but, except for the last twelve words, completely false.

In point of fact, the Truman family was not poor, but close to wealthy. At one point their farm comprised two thousand acres, and even in the early 1900s when, with harder times, it shrank to six hundred acres, it still produced upward of $15,000 in yearly income: the equivalent of $50,000 or more today. Its roots deep in the culture of the Missouri middle-border, part Southern and part Midwestern, the Truman family was part of a distinctive American gentry or even rural aristocracy, invisible though that fact was to Truman’s Eastern colleagues later on, or to the national press.

Neither his family nor he was ever humble. A strong mother taught him to read before he was five. And from the start his taste in reading was revealing: the lives of great men.

The Kennedys invited musicians to the White House, people like Pablo Casals. But Truman could really play the piano, and not just the “Missouri Waltz.” As a boy, Truman was a gifted and extensively coached pianist who was urged to make music his career. By the time he was sixteen he was playing Bach, Beethoven and Liszt; and when Paderewski visited Kansas City in 1900, the master showed the young adept how to play the “turn” in his Minuet in G. Wherever you touch Truman’s biography, whether in his performance as an officer in World War I, or in his personal affairs, his conviction of self-worth seems firmly rooted in his sense of his place in that local culture. It is characteristic that, for example, he chose for his bride Elizabeth Wallace, one of the most sought-after girls among the local gentry, an argumentative beauty who was not only a champion tennis player but also the best first-baseman in Independence and an outstanding ice-skater. When he was elected to the Senate at the age of fifty, a diary entry makes it clear that he felt equal to this or even higher office: “In reading the lives of great men, I found that the first victory they won was over themselves . . . self-discipline with all of them came first. I found that most of the great ones never thought they were great.” In the Senate he did not remain for long a back-bencher, but moved quickly into the centers of institutional power, and also made a national name for himself with his Truman Committee investigation of waste in the war effort. When the decision was made, in the light of FDR’s declining health, to sack the Russophile Wallace in 1944, Truman was by no means a capricious choice for the second spot on the ticket.

His major decisions, from the dropping of the atom bomb to the intervention in Korea, were made with dispatch; his confidence and his capacity for decision were not accidental or mysterious in origin.

In 1946 when the mega-crisis came, Truman was equal to it and met it head-on. The Soviets were making territorial demands on Turkey, threatening the conquest of Iran, and fomenting civil war in Greece. The economy of Western Europe lay shattered, and anarchy and starvation loomed imminent. Large Communist parties were bidding for power in France and Italy. England was on the edge of bankruptcy. The skill and courage with which Truman and Acheson met this enormous challenge — articulating the Truman Doctrine, intervening in Greece, launching the Marshall Plan, feeding Berlin with an air-lift for most of a year — have earned him a lasting place in history. He was, in the great phrase of Dean Acheson, present, and more than present, at the creation of the postwar Western system.

In a curious way the passage of time tends to draw a veil over faults and render old conflicts obsolete. Even the bitter issues get settled, one way or another, and no longer seem to matter much. In contrast, successful creation endures. NATO, the Truman Doctrine, and the Marshall Plan now seem much more important than, for example, the disputes over his largely defeated New Dealish domestic program. T. S. Eliot has noticed that time has had this absolving effect on the savage disputes of the English Civil War. As he wrote in “Little Gidding”:

I think of a king at nightfall,
Of three men, and more, on the scaffold
And a few others who died forgotten
In other places, here and abroad
. . . These men, and those who opposed them
And those whom they opposed
Accept the constitution of silence
And are folded in a single party.

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