The Truman Myth

I was present at the creation of the Truman myth. It came in response to Watergate. The straightforward 33rd president was seen as an antidote to the slippery and crooked Richard Nixon.

The Truman myth began in earnest after the man’s death on the day after Christmas in 1972. The bible, as it were, of the myth was published the next year: Plain Speaking by Merle Miller. This oral biography grew out of a failed teevee project. The interview tapes had more or less sat in a closet for a decade before hitting the best seller list and staying there for months on end.

My mother liked to give me books for my birthday. Plain Speaking was my birthday book in 1973. It was enormously entertaining, so I devoured it. Even then I understood that Merle Miller’s Harry Truman was an embellished version of the real man.

I come from a long line of storytellers. My father’s business colleagues insisted that he was scrupulously honest. I believed them but I also knew he liked to embellish his stories to make them funnier and more interesting. I recognized the same traits in Merle Miller’s Harry Truman.

Plain Speaking Harry Truman was the hero of every story, especially in his dealings with enemies such as Gen. Douglas MacArthur. He was an erudite auto-didactic expert on world history and geography. He was loyal to a fault to the man who made his political career, Kansas City political boss and convicted felon, Tom Pendergast. Truman’s defensive refrain about Boss Pendergast was, “He never asked me to do a dishonest thing.”

It was hard not to be entertained by the sassy and feisty former president as he cussed out his enemies. His favorite word to describe Gen. MacArthur and others was counterfeit. Teenage me knew that nobody was *that* courageous in the face of their opponents. Merle Miller’s Harry Truman always sounded like the stuff we say to ourselves *after* an argument. You know, I shoulda said this that or the other.

The Truman myth went on the road with James Whitmore’s one-man show Give ‘Em Hell, Harry. I saw it and liked it. Like Plain Speaking it was enormously entertaining and provided the role of a lifetime for a journeyman actor such as Whitmore. The stories were embellished, but that’s entertainment.

The Truman myth was set in stone in 1992 by David McCullough’s Pulitzer prize-winning biography, Truman. McCullough is one of our finest non-fiction writers and he buffed and shined the Truman myth until it sparkled. He did comment on some of the less savory aspects of his subject’s political career, but they were outweighed by tales of the mythic Truman. What’s not to love about the story of the 1948 campaign? It’s when Truman became the patron saint of underdogs.

I know that there are many other Truman books, but Miller and McCullough are the mythmakers. One could even call the mythic Truman Miller-McCullough Man.

Now that I’ve taken some of the shine off the Truman myth, on balance I think he was a good president. He accomplished some major things such as the Marshall Plan and made a start on treating black folks as full citizens. He just wasn’t David McCullough or Merle Miller’s Harry Truman. He was a mere mortal.

That brings me to the reason for this post. Law professor and Lawyers, Guns, and Money blogger Paul Campos has published a bombshell piece in New York Magazine: The Truman Show.

Campos focuses on the myth of the proud and financially strapped former president. Unlike previous biographers, Campos had access to Bess Truman’s personal files and put them to good use. Here are a few of his findings:

  • By his own accounting, Truman’s wealth increased by the 2021 equivalent of another $3.7 million when Congress passed the Former Presidents Act five and a half years after he left office.
  • Contrary to his claims, Truman made a fortune from his memoirs, and from other writing and speaking engagements, in the years immediately after he left the presidency.
  • Truman’s repeated insistence that only his inheritance and subsequent sale of the family farm were keeping him from financial distress was false in several ways. For one thing, Truman had already become a very wealthy man several years before he sold that land. For another, Truman did not actually inherit any of the land: He bought it, in no small part, with money that he had misappropriated from the federal government. He then sold it a few years later at an enormous profit.
  •  A large portion of the wealth Truman accumulated during his years in the White House seems to have come from a more than $2 million (in 2021 terms) expense account that Congress created a few days before the beginning of his full elected term. Truman apparently illegally pocketed the bulk of this money and filed fraudulent tax returns to disguise that fact.

Even after reading Campos’ article, I’m more charitable about Truman than he is. I had long thought that Merle Miller was the author of the Truman myth. Instead it was Harry Truman himself. I still regard the 33rd president as more of a storyteller than as a liar.

I’m also confused by the converted dollar figures thrown around by Campos. There are dozens of methods online with differing results: they range from converting 1953 dollars by between 25 and 100 times. Campos has chosen the latter, which makes his story more damning and sensational. I’m no statistician so I don’t know what the correct method is, but I feel a bit queasy at the way Campos throws numbers around.

One problem with the Campos piece is that it has a “they all do it” tone. It was inspired by Donald Trump’s grifting the government during and after his presidency*. It’s an invidious and odious comparison that’s unsupported by the facts of the piece.

Whereas Miller and McCullough always drew the most positive inferences from Truman’s conduct, Campos always draws the most negative inferences. I come down somewhere in the middle. Harry Truman was neither saint nor demon. He was an ordinary man who struggled financially before becoming president.

For informed readers, this is one of the weirder passages of the article:

For example, did Truman’s apparent misappropriation of the White House expense account play a role in his decision not to run for another term in 1952? The fact that Congress had in 1951 decided to make the funds drawn from the account taxable, and that Truman had not and would not declare any of that money on his tax return, suggests he may well have at least contemplated the fact that a major scandal would certainly erupt if his treatment of the account should become public in the midst of another presidential campaign.

In a word: NO. Truman had some of the lowest poll ratings in American history by 1952. Plus, Democrats had controlled the White House for twenty years, they were destined to lose that election. Truman was a canny politician, saw the writing on the wall, and did not run again.

I also don’t think Truman thought that there was anything wrong with converting the expense account into personal funds. He was a machine politician who was relatively poor when he became Veep. I don’t think it was in his makeup to think it was the wrong thing to do. Was he right? Not by contemporary standards but the events described by Paul Campos took place nearly seventy years ago.

Am I shocked that Harry Truman was mildly corrupt? Absolutely not.

Does that make him a bad president or person? Absolutely not.

Harry Truman was a creature of his time and place. By the standards of Boss Pendergast’s Kansas City machine, he was an honest man. By today’s standards, not so much except in comparison to the Impeached Insult Comedian.

I’m not a fan of presentism in assessing historical figures. It’s the current style but I think it has as many vices as the Miller-McCullough approach. Truman used racist language, but he also started the integration of the armed forces.

People are a mixed bag.  Harry Truman was no different. Hell, when it comes to financial self-dealing he’s a piker compared to Lyndon Johnson. I even think that Tricky Dick did some good things as president when he wasn’t scandalling.

Paul Campos did some excellent research and exposed some troubling information about Harry Truman. His tone is too moralistic for my taste but taking the Truman myth down a few pegs is not a bad thing even for those of us who were present at the creation.

The last word goes to Chicago with the anthem of the Truman myth:

6 thoughts on “The Truman Myth

  1. .My wife gave me Joe Scarboroughs book on Truman – it was unreadable.
    I have a half dozen Truman books – regardless of his early faults, he stands atop our best

  2. Having experienced bankrupcy and humiliation by his in laws in his earlier life I think goes a long way towards his fear of it happening again.
    Unconsciosly most likely, but in habits from ones youth are hard to recognize much les combat.
    Was he a saint No but like the case of Rostenkowski what he took was peanuts compared to what he could have done.
    Plus going back to Tammany his was “honest” graft. He skimmed of the top of his official accounts he did NOT seek profit in selling his vote or influence.
    But graft it still was.

    1. Pete, rereading your article this morning – what an entertaining and thought provoking article. Much alas to my education I took a speed reading summer school
      course – to my detriment sometimes .
      I’m glad to have taken the time to read every word
      Again, Great Writing –

  3. A few notes:

    (1) When converting nominal dollars into constant dollars, I used the standard CPI calculator used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This converts a January 1953 dollar into $10.21 in 2021 money, so a ten to one ratio, not 100 to 1.

    (2) Truman held a meeting with about a dozen of his closest confidantes and advisors in early March 1952, at which he asked them their views on whether he should run or not. According to Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Fred Vinson, who was there, they unanimously urged him not to run. So Truman was clearly thinking of doing so as late as March of the election year.

    (3) I think Truman was a pretty good president overall, but in terms of money he turns out to have been extremely unscrupulous, which is unfortunate but those are the facts. This is the only thing he has in common with Donald Trump, who is completely awful in many other ways.

    1. Thanks for commenting. On balance I liked your piece even if I had some criticisms. Actually, the first act of my post was the part I liked the best. Writing about the Truman myth was great fun.

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