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Portrait of Truman | The Nation

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Portrait of Truman

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The mysterious Missourian who has just stepped into some very big shoes.

About the Author

Harry S. Truman is an average man who at the age of thirty-eight stepped on the escalator of an American political machine because he needed a job and has been carried to the very top floor&mdashthe Presidency of the United States. No one, probably, is more surprised than he is unless it is his friends, who were already rubbing their eyes at the fact that he was Vice-President.

Roosevelt and Wallace have been spokesmen for the Common Man, who is the average man dressed up in his rhetorical Sunday best. President Truman is the average man. He is Tom-Dick-and-Harry Truman; and he would not object to that designation, for his respect and regard for the common run of people, including himself, is probably greater than that of many who speak in their name and wish to do them good.

When people talk about Truman&mdashor rather when they talked about him, for a Truman myth, no doubt, is already in the making&mdashthey tend toward negatives. He is not brilliant&mdashhe definitely has a ceiling, as one person put it. He is not a man of vision. He is not an innovator.

I would add, on the basis of a short interview, that compared with a Roosevelt or a Churchill he has no temperament, no afflatus, and for all his amiability, no charm. He is not a worldly or a cultivated man.

On the other hand, he is, according to all accounts, personally honest, sincere, conscientious, a hard worker with a practical intelligence. He likes people, gets along with everybody, and is extremely loyal to his friends. He reads a good deal, enjoys music, and plays the piano for his own pleasure. In appearance he is plain, neat, undistinguished, agile. His smile, which is constant, seemed to me a bit automatic.

I was told more than once that he is aware of his own limitations, that he has the sense and the humility to pick competent assistants and can delegate authority. He showed himself a good administrator as chairman of the Senate Committee to Investigate the Defense Program, which did an excellent and pretty comprehensive job on very little money, and which, despite the politically explosive area of its investigations and the mixed party affiliations of its members, never turned up a minority report.

Everybody knows that Truman got his political start, and became a Senator the first time, by means of the support of the Pendergast machine. Everybody will tend, from now on, to play down, brush off, ignore that connection. Everybody, that is, except Truman himself. He will be the last to deny that he is a machine politician, or to be ashamed of it. His relations with the Pendergast machine and his attitude toward it furnish the key not only to his career but to his character and type, which is, I think, a type we shall have a great deal to do with in the next half-century. All over the world the statesman is being displaced by the practical politician--an inevitable development in what is to be, culturally as well as politically, the century of the average man.

In 1921 Harry Truman, who was then in his late thirties, had not yet established himself. In fact, he had just failed in the haberdashery business in which he had invested his savings on his return from World War I--before the war he had spent ten years running the family farm. One of his buddies had been the nephew of Tom Pendergast, and through this connection and other friends Truman got his first political office. In 1922 he was elected county judge in Jackson County, which was controlled by the Pendergast machine. Jackson County judges are really county commissioners whose job it is to let contracts for and supervise the construction of highways and other public facilities. Millions of dollars of public money pass through their hands. In 1924 "Judge" Truman was defeated, but in 1926 he was elected as presiding judge and reelected in 1930. As a county judge Truman established a reputation for personal honesty which still stands. He built up a statewide acquaintance as well. A Baptist by religion, he was also a "high" Mason and an active Legionnaire. He belonged to the County Judges Association, which is said to be a powerful organization in Missouri. Anyway, by inclination Truman is, and always has been, "a member of the club."

In 1934 he wanted a better job. The accounts diverge as to how the better job turned out to be that of United States Senator. The most dramatic is a tall tale in spirit if not in fact. It relates that he went to Pendergast and asked for a post that paid $25,000 in fees. "You're not a big enough mars for that job," said Pendergast. "The best I can do now, Harry, is a United States Senatorship." Only a $15,000 job. More credible is the story that he wanted to be nominated for Congress in a newly created district but that Pendergast was already committed to another candidate; that some weeks later Pendergast's nephew and the Democratic state chairman urged him to fiie for Senator, and that Pendergast threw the machine's support to him after a strong movement in his favor had already set in. The third account, which is the most convincing but the least picturesque, does not necessarily rule out the second: he was nominated because Pendergast was determined to defeat Champ Clark's candidate and needed a respectable name on his own slate.

Truman won the nomination by a plurality of some 40,000. It was demonstrated later that the "graveyard registration" in his district in 1934 was so large that his own plurality was probably made up of ghosts. But he had the job.

In 1940, when he came up for renomination and reelection, his defeat was freely predicted. The Pendergast machine was broken and disgraced. Out of "personal loyalty" Truman had not disowned Pendergast. On the contrary he said, "I accepted his support when he was on top. And I'm not going to kick him when he's down." By the same token he has remained vindictive against Pendergast's prosecutor, Milligan. Truman had two opponents in the 1940 primary, both of whom claimed credit for wrecking the Pendergast machine. They divided the credit and the vote--and Truman won.

Truman is personally honest. But he was not bothered by the scandalous methods by which the machine elected him in 1934. In an article in Common Sense last fall Grace and Morris Milgram recorded his frank answers to their direct questions about his relations with the machine.

There was nothing wrong with my relations with the Pendergast machine. Every Democratic politician including myself went to Tom Pendergast for support. He is a fine gentleman. He was always helping people, even people who did nothing for him. You could trust him. His word was his bond.

Those things [the graveyard registration] were due to over-zealousness by Tom's boys. They were too anxious to make a good showing for the boss. Tom didn't know anything about it--he was never involved in that sort of thing. Those fake registrations weren't needed to enable the machine to win.

The idea that one is pot "involved in that sort of thing" unless one actually writes in phony names implies a concept of personal honesty that must shock the moralist. It is assumed by most politicians, and though few people would, be so frank as to express the views given above, they are accepted in practice in large sectors of American life. That is an even more important--and dreary--fact than Truman's acceptance of it.

Mr. Truman went on to say that "you've got to have leadership in polities, and a boss is only a leader"--which should give the political theorist a turn.

Harry S. Truman is neither a moralist nor a political theorist. He is a practical man from Missouri who takes the world as he finds it.

In the Senate Truman was a loyal Administration supporter, as was to be expected, and his horizons widened if only because of his adaptability, which sometimes performs the functions of imagination. He went on making friends, retained the member of an even larger club. Because he was so perfect a liaison man he was expected, as Vice-President, to play a highly important role in securing adoption of legislation implementing the peace, and he considered that his main job. We may assume that as president he will carry it through. He will do his best, moreover, to make tie peace conform to the Roosevelt specifications if only out of "personal loyalty." There seems to me no question, by the way, that he has a much better chance of achieving that aim than Wallace would have had; and that consideration may well have played a part in Roosevelt's easy relinquishment of Wallace as a running-mate in the list election.

On domestic policy too I think Truman will follow Roosevelt's lead --until he gets to a point where specifications are missing and his deeply felt obligation to his predecessor cannot be defined. His limited imagination, his "practical" methods, and his short-run way of thinking will then come into play. He is likely to think of employment for returning veterans, for instance, not in terms of political or social theory, but in terms of taking care of the boys. He suggested to me, rather complacently, that since we would be at least four years behind, replacements would keep us busy. In general, where a Wallace or a Roosevelt would put forth a bold and comprehensive program, achieve part of it against opposition, and in the process push, back the boundaries of public opinion to take in new social objectives, Truman is likely to ask for no more than he can get without creating enemies. It is possible, of course, that in a given instance what Truman will ask for will be quite as much as a Roosevelt or a Wallace would achieve. But he will break no new paths, push back no boundaries; and he will tend to equate public opinion with party opinion, both Republican and Democratic.

Truman, in a word, will stick to the center of gravity; and his techniques will be more those of machine politics, especially, compromise. Truman's life began with a compromise, if we may, believe the story that the S. in his name stands for nothing because the choice lay between Sherman and Shippe and in order not to offend either pressure group his parents agreed to make it simply S. He believes in compromise; to him "government is politics," politics is mediation.

This lends vital importance to what seems to be a fact--that Truman represents no vested interest, unless machine politics as a way of government can be called that. He has shown no reluctance to attack big business. He believes in preparedness, but he also believes in civilian control. He has gone along with Roosevelt's labor policies and is trusted by the Railway Brotherhoods, the A. F. of L., and the C. I. O.--in that order.

The eventual danger lies in his complete lack of ideology. In Roosevelt's thinking labor had a status which did not depend on the actual political strength it could show. With Truman, I think, labor will be just one group among others, and it will have to earn its way politically. He is neither anti- nor pro-labor. Given the present distribution of political and economic power in this country, that means that labor will have to fight hard for everything it gets and be extremely vigilant about keeping what it has. Noblesse oblige, which labor could count on with Roosevelt, is no more.

On some issues, of course, Truman can be pushed just so far and no farther. On the Negro question, for instance, he is a loyal liberal Southerner, which means that he advocates equality of opportunity and education but considers social equality out of the question, now or ever. But here again, he is at least frank about it. The Milgrams quote a speech he made at the National Colored Democratic Association in 1940. "Before I go farther," he said, "I wish to make it clear that I am not appealing for social equality for the Negro. The Negro himself knows better than that, and the highest types of Negro leaders say frankly they prefer the society of their own people."

Some people saw signs of the martinet in Truman's handling of Senator Murray's bill for a Missouri Valley Authority. Some said it was a typical Truman compromise, and one person suggested that the compromise was part of Truman's liaison work in behalf of the coming peace treaty.

President Truman thinks of himself, I should say, as a "sensible" liberal. He will find left New Dealers less congenial personally than regular party men, but if the right expects any spectacular overturn of the New Deal it will probably be disappointed. He once said that he would be just another constitutional Vice-President. I'm inclined to think he will be just another constitutional President.

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