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Sunday, May 8, 2016

Harry S. Truman Portraits

President Harry S. Truman, 1945, Greta Kempton, official White House portrait.
Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don’t know whether you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.” --Harry S. Truman
Harry Truman, 1948, Greta Kempton,
National Portrait Gallery
On April 13, 1945, his first full day in office, President Harry S. Truman had good reason to feel overwhelmed. The day before, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had suffered a severe stroke and died at the "Little White House" at Warm Springs, Georgia, where he had been resting from his recent trip to the Yalta Summit. There he had met with Stalin and Churchill to deal with the looming aftermath of WW II. Born in 1884, Truman was sixty years old when he became President. One might easily say he was one of the most ill-prepared men ever to assume that office. Today, marks his 132nd birthday. On his sixty-first birthday, May 8, 1945, Truman received one of the greatest birthday gifts ever given. That date was also V-E Day, the end of fighting in Europe.

Roosevelt-Truman campaign poster
Harry Truman was sworn in as Vice President on January 20, 1945. During the less than three months before he became president, he had spoken in person with Roosevelt exactly twice. They had rarely discussed world affairs or domestic politics and he was told little about the progress of the war. In fact, he knew absolutely nothing about the top-secret Manhattan Project, which was about to test the world's first atomic bomb. Just months later, he was the first and only president to ever issue orders for the use of that horrifying weapon, not once, but twice against Japan. His doing so is said to have hastened V-J Day by months, perhaps years, bringing the war to an end just days later.

Truman opposite the famous Truman Balcony behind the south portico of the White House (top-left). Truman is pictured on the cover of Time magazine shortly after becoming President (top-right), and Truman in full Freemasonry regalia (bottom-right). The smiling bronze head (lower-left) is from the Truman Library, Kansas City, Missouri.
Madame Tussaud's Harry Truman
Despite being one of the most ill-prepared vice presidents to ever assume office following the death of a President, Truman is often credited with being one of the most underestimated men to ever hold that office. Even during just his first three years in office, fulfilling Roosevelt's fourth term, Truman oversaw the final development and use of nuclear weapons, the end of hostilities both in Europe and Japan, the organization of the United Nations, the uneasy transition from war to a peacetime economy, labor-management conflicts, as well as severe shortages in housing and consumer goods which triggered widespread inflation. At one point the inflation rate hit 6% in a single month. Then came a big steel strike in January 1946 involving 800,000 workers—the largest in the nation's history. It was followed by a coal strike in April and a rail strike in May. The public was angry, with a majority in polls favoring a ban on strikes by public service workers and a year's moratorium on labor actions. Truman proposed legislation to draft striking workers into the Armed Forces. However, in a dramatic personal appearance before Congress, Truman was able to announce settlement of the rail strike. Despite this, The President's approval rating plummeted from 82% in January, 1946, to 52% by June. It later dropped to an abysmal 32%. In the 1946 midterm elections, Republicans took control of Congress for the first time since 1930.

The Portrait study on the left is an original charcoal drawing by Frank O. Salisbury of President Truman from 1946. The study was used by Salisbury to create the painting of Truman that same year. In 2009, President Obama borrowed this painting of Truman to hang in the White House cabinet room.
By the spring of 1948, Truman's public approval rating had risen only slightly to 36%. Truman was almost universally seen as incapable of winning the general election. The "New Deal" operatives within Truman's own party tried to swing the Democratic nomination to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, a highly popular figure whose political views and party affiliation were totally unknown. Eisenhower emphatically refused to accept, and Truman outflanked his opponents to win the nomination. Then, within two weeks of the 1948 convention, Truman issued an executive order racially integrating the U.S. armed forces, shortly followed by a second order to integrate all federal agencies. Immediately all hell broke loose. The Democratic party split three ways, with the so-called Dixiecrats in the South fighting for states rights while former vice-president Henry Wallace and the Progressive Party challenged Truman on the left. The Democratic Party seemed to be disintegrating into "one unholy, confusing cacophony." (Sounds familiar, doesn't it?)

That's not a smile on Truman's face, it's a "last laugh."
The campaign was a grueling 21,928-mile presidential odyssey; a personal appeal to the nation. Truman crisscrossed the U.S. by train; his "whistle stop" speeches from the rear platform of a railway car, came to represent his campaign. His combative attitude battling a "Do Nothing Congress," captured the popular imagination and drew huge crowds. Just six stops in Michigan brought out a total of a half-million people with a full million turning out for a New York City ticker-tape parade. Come election night, Truman held his progressive Midwestern base, won most of the Southern states despite the civil rights party platform plank, and squeaked through with narrow victories in the critical states of Ohio, California, and Illinois. The final tally showed Truman with 303 electoral votes, his Republican opponent, Thomas Dewey, with 189, and Dixiecrat, Strom Thurmond, with only 39 (270 votes were needed to win). Henry Wallace got none. The defining image of the campaign came the morning after Election Day, when an ecstatic Truman held aloft the erroneous front page of the Chicago Tribune bearing a huge headline which proclaimed "Dewey Defeats Truman!" (above).

Portrait of the Truman Family,  Harry, his daughter, Margaret, and his wife, Bess.,
ca. 1950, Greta Kempton.
Bess Truman, White House portrait,
ca. 1952, Greta Kempton
It seem strange to say, but during most of Truman's seven years in office he did not live in the White House. In 1948 the president ordered the installation of what has come to be known as the Truman balcony behind the pillars of the South Portico. Critics called it unsightly but far more important, as the work was being done engineers found the 130-year-old structure had major structural defic-iencies, leaving it standing, as one arch-itect put it, "purely from habit." After the election, Truman was told the only part of the White House that was sound was his new balcony. The Trumans (above) mov-ed across Lafayette Square to the nearby Blair House (the White House guest house) during the renovations. As the newer West Wing, including the Oval Office, remained open, Truman walked across the street to and from work each morning and afternoon. Eventually the decision was made to demolish and rebuild the whole interior of the main structure, as well as excavate new basement levels and underpin the foundations. The famous exterior of the structure was buttressed but retained, while the extensive renovations proceeded inside. The work (below) lasted from December 1949 until March 1952.

It would have been cheaper to rebuild the whole place from scratch.
When Truman left the brand new White House, he returned to Independence, Missouri, to live at the Wallace home he and Bess had shared for years with her mother (below). Once out of office, Truman chose not to be on any corporate payroll, believing that doing so would diminish the integrity of the nation's highest office. He also turned down numerous offers for commercial endorsements. Since his earlier business ventures had proved unsuccessful, he had no personal savings. As a result, he faced severe financial challenges. Once Truman left the White House, his only income was his old army pension of just $112.56 per month. Former members of Congress and the federal courts received a federal retirement package. Truman had seen to it that former servants of the executive branch received similar support. In 1953, however, there was no such benefit package for former presidents, and he received no pension for his Senate service.

When Truman returned to his Victorian home in Independence, Missouri, he was dismayed
to find that the Secret Service had built a wrought iron fence around the place.
The last president to leave the
White House a pauper.
Truman got a loan from a Missouri bank shortly after leaving office, then set about establishing another precedent for future former chief executives--a book deal for his memoirs covering his time in office. Former President Grant had overcome similar financial woes with his Civil War memoirs, though the book had been published posthumously, and he declined to write about life in the White House. For the memoirs, Truman received only a flat payment of $670,000, of which he had to pay two-thirds of it in taxes. In the end, after paying his assistants, Truman calculated he got about $37,000 for his efforts. The next year, Congress passed the Former Presidents Act, offering a $25,000 per year pension to each former president. It is likely that Truman's financial plight played a substantial role in the law's enactment. The one other living former president at the time, Herbert Hoover, also took the pension, even though he did not need the money. It's reported he did so to avoid embarrassing Truman.
Harry S. Truman, rising to the challenge...
growing in the job...beating expectations.


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