INDEPENDENCE, Mo. — Truman was human, and, as president, made his share of mistakes.
Say it again with different emphasis. Harry Truman was human, and it was that very humanity, his honesty, his extraordinary ordinariness, that made — and makes — him popular.
It is a cold gray March day that soon will work its way to snow, but I am wandering through the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum feeling warm and wild about Harry. There is a special exhibit about spies that is supposed to lend relevance, but I prefer the permanent exhibits. The old model radio blares his unaffected, unaristocratic voice: “I’m Harry S. Truman. I work for the government, and I’m trying to keep my job.”
His letter to Bess from the Key West White House proves he’s neither sanctimonious nor hypocritical. “We are debating whether to go to church at 11 o’clock and then go to the beach or go to the beach … and hope to get to church later or some other day. The latter will probably win.”
He wrote to Bess often, daily when they were apart, the kind of letters most wives only dream of getting from their husbands, even in the first years of marriage.
Here’s what he wrote on their 29th — yes, 29th — wedding anniversary, fondly recalling his sixth year of life and their first meeting: You are still on the pedestal where I placed you that day in Sunday School 1890.”
Geez Louise, to get that kind of missive from a lover, much less a husband. Theirs was a legendary romance, at least on Harry’s part, beginning with a nine-year courtship and his arduous campaign to convince Bess to be his wife. He even built a tennis court at his grandparents’ farm to try to woo her. Bess played; he didn’t.
The two finally were married June 28, 1919, and the 1,300 letters he sent her over the course of a long marriage are still intact, helping us forget monkey business, little blue dresses and whatnot, before and after the Trumans occupied the White House.
Was it the man or the times that made it possible for a politician to say exactly what was on his mind — and get away with it? I can’t decide. Harry Truman could threaten to bloody the up-turned nose of the music critic who dared to say bad things about his daughter Margaret’s singing. He could tell his wife he missed her and mean it.
Best of all, he could give his political adversaries hell in plain language and not worry about posturing, reaching across the aisle and drawing back a nub. Harry could warn the voters that the responsibility ultimately rested with them.
“Keep these reactionaries in power, you’ll deserve every blow you get.”
Would that a leader now could talk and act and be guided by conscience, not opinion polls, high-paid consultants and political expediency. If such a leader would emerge, we might be wild about her.
To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.