Harry Truman and Bess: Another E-mail from Your Dad

Did he pay for that paper?
Like most of you, I get e-mails from my dad full of "facts" that are basically telling me how much better life was in the past than it is now. People were more respectful, politicians were more honest, and values were more...valued?

Case in point, yesterday I received a list of trivia about Harry S Truman that supposedly show how frugal and "just folks" he was, and how we'll never see his like again. Like most of these sorts of things, there's some truth in them, but it's all slanted towards the conclusion. You can read the e-mail here, but I've pulled out the main points and rebutted below.

The only asset he had when he died was the house he lived in, which was in Independence Missouri. His wife had inherited the house from her mother and father and other than their years in the White House they lived their entire lives there.

That's not Bess on the piano, by the way.
It's true that Truman is rare among presidents for having never owned a house before becoming president, but the snippet is a little misleading. Harry and Bess moved into the 14-room mansion at the request of Bess's mom after her father committed suicide. It seemed like a good move financially to Harry, who was focusing on his haberdashery. When that business failed, they stayed in the house while Harry paid off the bankruptcy debts.

Regardless, Truman owned a 600-acre farm he inherited in addition to the house. He still owned at least some of it at the time of his death. So the house wasn't his only asset.

When he retired from office in 1952, his income was a U.S. Army pension reported to have been $13,507.72 a year. Congress, noting that he was paying for his stamps and personally licking them, granted him an 'allowance' and, later, a retroactive pension of $25,000 per year.

I'm not sure what this is supposed to say about Truman. A $13,500 annual pension in 1952 is over $100,000 in today's money. Still, Congress did think that Truman was not living the lifestyle a former president should, and passed the Former Presidents Act in 1958 to ensure that all future presidents received lifetime pensions and benefits. The $25,000 thing, though, wasn't Congress. That was Andrew Carnegie offering to subsidize pensions for former presidents out of his own pocket. His offer was rejected and the law passed instead. It should be noted that the only other living former president at the time, Eisenhower, also received benefits from the act.

After President Eisenhower was inaugurated, Harry and Bess drove home to Missouri by themselves. There was no Secret Service following them.

It's true that he drove home, and even was stopped by a traffic cop for driving too slow. I haven't seen whether or not Secret Service kept an eye on him or not, but since he'd already survived an assassination attempt once, I wouldn't be surprised if they did. In any case, the Former Presidents Act granted him lifetime Secret Service protection, a protocol that continued up to George W. Bush and beyond, who only get ten years. Fun fact: The only former president to waive Secret Service protection? Richard Nixon.

When offered corporate positions at large salaries, he declined, stating, "You don't want me. You want the office of the President, and that doesn't belong to me. It belongs to the American people, and it's not for sale."

Close, but not quite. Whether he said this sort of thing to any specific company is conjecture. The misquote comes from his 1960 book Mr. Citizen:

I turned down all those offers. I knew they were not interested in hiring Harry Truman, the person, but what they wanted to hire was the Former President of the United States. I could never lend myself to any transaction, however respectable, that would commercialize on the prestige and the dignity of the office of the presidency.

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One of my college girlfriends grew up down the street from the Trumans (and still lives there in the house SHE inherited).  I asked her about the "12 room mansion," which got the reply question "is this guy given to frequent bouts of inaccurate posting?"...that was the nicest thing she said.  

The houses in that part of Independence are about what you would find along and near Heights Boulevard here - late 1800s/early 1900s Victorians, some pretty good sized, but nothing fancy.  Except there's NO new construction there, and the house next door to where Harry and Bess lived is on the market for under $130K.


I always enjoy reading the story about Paul Hume, a music critic who was a little harsh in his review of a performance by Margaret Truman.  Harry made some rather angry and, by the standards of the time, very rude comments about the critic.  There was a big flap, but every dad in the country understood and forgave him.

Years later, Hume visited the Truman Library, and when Truman was told he was there he came out to greet the critic and insisted on giving him a personal tour of the library.  Class.

Nightmare on Bagby
Nightmare on Bagby

There's a character in an Elmore Leonard novel (think it was "La Brava") who is a former Secret Service agent who quit of sheer boredom after a spell on the Bess Truman detail. Just sitting around the parlor, day after day....

A while back I read Eisenhower's "informal " autobiography "At Ease" and I was surprised at how much detail he went into on his post-presidential income - a pension, a minor (by today's standards) book deal, and a good deal of fretting over financing his retirement home near Gettysburg. No corporate board seats or lucrative overseas speaking gigs for Ike!

Robert McClellan
Robert McClellan

Truman’s retirement pay was based on his years of totalFederal service. Most of that was, of course, as a Senator and President; thatis hardly a surprise since 13,000 would have been three times the salary of anactive duty Captain.

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