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

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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.

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.

Even later, on May 6, 1971, when Congress was preparing to award him the Medal of Honor on his 87th birthday, he refused to accept it, writing, "I don 't consider that I have done anything which should be the reason for any award, Congressional or otherwise."

The quote is real, but his main reason for turning down the medal was that he thought it should only be awarded for combat bravery, and that the rules should not be changed for him as it would detract from the value of the award. He has been awarded several Congressional Gold Medals posthumously.

As president he paid for all of his own travel expenses and food.

That one is just ridiculous. Truman obviously used taxpayer-funded transport, including the same plane that Roosevelt flew in, the Sacred Cow. He also would've eaten at official dinners hosted at the White House. As for paying for other personal food not at official functions, all presidents do so. Travel is covered, though.

Modern politicians have found a new level of success in cashing in on the Presidency, resulting in untold wealth.

I'm not sure what they're defining as "untold wealth." Most presidents are pretty well-off before they're elected, exceptions being Truman, Nixon and Andrew Johnson. That some capitalize on their former position to sell books, as Truman did, I have no problem with. I personally think much more of the post-presidency career of Jimmy Carter as a humanitarian than Truman's.

I'd also argue that the saddest cashing-in that goes on isn't from presidents, but from failed candidates like Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee who go on to have careers as panelists despite not being qualified to do the exact thing they are being paid to talk about.

Yes, he was frugal and plainspoken, but I don't think he was some monkish paragon as this list makes him out to be. When I questioned the veracity of this list, my father said, "I knew he was a very frugal man and would not spend a dime of taxpayer money on himself or his family."

But he did. He did until the day he died. Like all the presidents who have come since.

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