Harry Truman — The Last Middle-Class President

Harry Truman — The Last Middle-Class President

Our 33rd President left office in 1953 as one of the most unpopular chief executives in History.  Harry S. Truman’s approval rating was 22 percent according to the Gallup Poll of February, 1952.  Even Richard Nixon scored 24 percent in August of 1974; the month that he became the only President to ever resign from office.  However, since leaving office, Truman has fared well in polls ranking the presidents; having never been listed lower than ninth and most recently was ranked fifth in a C-SPAN poll in 2009.

Harry’s greatest asset, an innate ability to identify with middle-class Americans, was also the underlying cause for much of his unpopularity.  While Truman’s homespun, often feisty style of leadership was endeared by many; the elite saw him as limited, undignified and not up to the awesome responsibilities of a postwar presidency.  But the common folks loved him and encouraged his straight-forward speech, following his own preferences in vocabulary, with the chant, “Give ‘em hell, Harry.”  When things got tough, his admirers would also quote him, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen!”  Some might have found fault with his commonness, but none could question his honesty or integrity.

Honesty, integrity and respect for others began for Harry Truman long before the presidency.  In 1919, at age 35, he married Elizabeth (Bess) Virginia Wallace at the bride’s church.  Unable to afford a place of their own, the newly-wed couple moved into the residence of Bess’s mother, Madge Gates Wallace, at 219 N. Delaware, Independence, Missouri.  Except for the time they spent in the White House, Harry and Bess lived at this address for the rest of their lives.  In November of the same year, Harry opened a men’s haberdashery store, in partnership with Edward Jacobson, at 104 West 12th Street, Kansas City Missouri, but by1922, the business had gone bust.  However, Truman refused to file a petition for bankruptcy and paid off his share of the stores debts for the next fifteen years. 

Even achieving the presidency did not insure financial security for Harry and Bess.  After watching Dwight D. Eisenhower take the oath of office as the 34th President of the United States, private citizen Harry S. Truman with his wife Bess on his arm boarded an afternoon train for the trip back to Missouri.  They had no Secret Service protection or Presidential retirement or pension.  Two days later, when they pulled into the Independence railroad depot, Harry and Bess were welcomed by 10,000 of their fellow townspeople. Mrs. Truman spoke for Harry when she exclaimed, “If this is what you get for all those years of hard work I guess it was worth it.”

Since early business ventures had proved unsuccessful, the Trumans faced financial challenges back home as their only income was Harry’s Army pension of $112.56 per month.  Despite the pressure, former President Truman decided that he did not wish to be on any corporate boards or payrolls, believing that taking advantage of such offers would diminish the integrity of the nation’s highest office.  So Harry did what many middle-class Americans have had to do when faced with money problems, he took out a personal loan from a Missouri bank.  In 1957 Truman was quoted as saying to John McCormick, then House Majority Leader, “Had it not been for the fact that I was able to sell some property that my brother, sister and I inherited from our mother, I would practically be on relief, but with the sale of that property I am not financially embarrassed.”  Fortunately in 1958, perhaps as a result of the Truman’s financial predicament, Congress passed the Former Presidents Act, offering a $25,000 yearly pension to each former president.

Honesty and integrity are not just monetary characteristics of a laudable individual.  As President Truman’s car was leaving the Potsdam Conference one evening in 1945, a young brash Army officer stuck his head in the window and tells the Commander In Chief, “Mr. President, I can arrange anything you’d like while you’re here, anything in the way of wine and women.”  According to witnesses, Harry became livid and quickly dressed down the man, “Listen, son, I married my sweetheart. She doesn’t run around on me and I don’t run around on her and I want that understood.  Don’t ever mention that kind of stuff to me again!”

Harry S. Truman, “Mr. Citizen” as he called himself, died on December 26, 1972.  Bess Truman, the love of Harry’s life, died on October 18, 1982.  They are buried side by side in the Truman Library’s courtyard in Independence, Missouri. ♣