Column: Give 'em hell, Harry!

Reluctant candidate becomes one of America's most memorable presidents

Thirty-third president of the United States Harry Truman.

Thirty-third president of the United States Harry Truman.

Editor's note: In an election year when the options appear limited, this story might provide a glimmer of hope for voters.


On April 12, 1945, Vice President Harry S. Truman dropped by Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn's office for a late afternoon drink.

As Rayburn mixed the drinks, he said Steve Early, the White House press secretary, had left a message asking the vice president to call at once. When Truman got him on the phone, Early asked that he come over as quickly and quietly as he could.

When Truman arrived, he was ushered into Eleanore. Roosevelt's sitting room.

"Harry," said Mrs. Roosevelt, putting her arm on Truman's shoulder, "the president is dead."

Stunned, Truman was silent for a moment. Then, he asked, "Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now."

The next morning when he assembled a group of reporters, he said, "Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now."

If Truman was pessimistic about his own abilities, he was in good company; virtually nobody expected great things from this little-known politician from Missouri.

"Now, Harry," Rayburn said to the new president, "a lot of people are going to tell you that you are the smartest man in the country, but Harry, you and I know you ain't."

Truman remains the only 20th-century president without a college degree.

Harry S Truman was born on May 8, 1884, in Missouri. The S in his name does not have a period after it. It does not stand for anything.

When he was born, a disagreement arose over whether to make his middle name Shippe, after his paternal grandfather, or Solomon, after his maternal grandfather. The issue never was resolved, and S was put on his birth certificate as a compromise.

In his younger days, Truman had been a mailroom clerk, a bookkeeper and a farmer. At the age of 33, he volunteered for the Army and became a captain of artillery during World War I. When he came home, he opened a men's clothing store in Kansas City. After it went bust, he decided to give politics a try.

The local Democratic machine was as corrupt as they come, but it overlooked Truman's honesty to make him a judge in Jackson County, Missouri. He went on to the U.S. Senate, where his investigations of defense contracts saved the government billions of dollars.

Though Truman loved being a senator, Franklin Roosevelt had bigger plans for him, and eventually convinced the irascible Missourian to become his vice-presidential candidate in 1944.

Although unprepared to fill FDR's shoes, the new president soon was rubbing shoulders with Churchill and Stalin at the Potsdam Conference, and authorizing the use of atomic bombs against Japan.

Due mainly to postwar economic hardships, Truman's popularity had waned so severely by 1948 that nobody, literally nobody thought he could win re-election. He launched a vigorous whistle-stop campaign fought in large part from the back of a railcar that toured the country.

Despite a steady barrage of criticism, Truman became increasingly self confident and even cocky as he familiarized himself with the duties and responsibilities of his office.

"If you can't stand the heat," he said, "stay out of the kitchen."

He kept two mottos on his desk. One said, "The buck stops here." The other quoted Mark Twain: "Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest."

By 1948, Democratic leaders were casting about for someone other than Truman to run for president, while Republicans were looking forward confidently to taking over the White House after the November election.

After a Republican nominated Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York with every expectation of victory, the Democrats met amid great gloom in Philadelphia to make their choice. Signs in the convention hall summed up the feeling of most of the delegates: "I'M JUST MILD ABOUT HARRY."

Truman's spunk was aroused. He was absolutely certain he could win.

He made a rip-roaring speech at the convention, called the Republican-controlled Congress back into session to tackle inflation and the housing crisis, and planned a cross-country tour in which he would lambaste the Republican Congress at every turn.

"Mow 'em down!" vice-presidential nominee Alben Barkley told him.

"I'm going to give'em hell!" Truman promised him. He did just that.

Everywhere he went, he tore into the Republicans with ridicule and scorn.

"when I called them back into session in July, what did they do?" he cried. "Nothing. The Congress never did anything the whole time it was in session. If the Republicans win, they'll tear you to pieces."

"Give 'em hell, Harry!" came a cry from the crowd in Chicago.

"I have good news for you," Truman shouted back. "We have the Republicans on the run. We are going to win."

But no one believed him. "Reporters laughed hysterically," according to his daughter when he announced he would sweep the nation.

Editors, columnists, radio commentators, political savants and professional pollsters all predicted a substantial victory for Dewey.

On Election Night, the first scattered returns showed Truman leading.

"But this is only an early lead," one radio commentator explained. "He cannot win. His early lead will fold up."

Then came the news that Dewey had won in New York. A Kansas City friend, Tom Evans, called Truman in his hotel in Excelsior, Mo., to tell him that he had to carry either Ohio, Illinois or California to win.

"Don't call me any more," Truman said. "I'm going to bed."

At 4 a.m., one of Truman's Secret Service men burst into his room and told him to listen to radio commentator H.V. Kaltenborn. Truman turned on the radio and learned he was more than 2 million votes ahead, but that Kaltenborn was still insisting, "I don't see how he can be elected."

Dewey finally conceded at 11:14 a.m. Stunned by his defeat, Dewey later said he felt like the man who awoke to find himself inside a coffin with a lily in his hand and thought, "If I'm alive, what am I doing here? And if I'm dead, why do I have to go to the bathroom?"

Truman could not help chortling over his victory. At St. Louis, on his way to Washington, he held up for reporters a copy of the Chicago Tribune with its morning headline: "DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN."

Back in the nation's capital, he found a sign in front of the Washington Post building that read, "Mr. President, we are ready to eat crow whenever you are ready to serve it."

Truman's second term was, if anything, more tumultuous than the first, what with the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 and the rise of McCarthyism - with its assertion that the nation was honeycombed with subversives - at about the same time.

In April 1951, Truman removed General Douglas MacArthur from his command of UN forces in Korea for repeatedly criticizing the administration's policy of avoiding fighting in China. This produced a storm that lasted many months, amid calls for impeachment.

After the election and inauguration of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Trumans returned to Independence, Mo. When a reporter asked what was the first thing he had done when he walked into his house the night before, Truman simply replied, "I carried the grips up to the attic."

A few weeks later, the Trumans stopped in San Francisco en route to Hawaii to have dinner with George Killion, head of the steamship company on whose liner they were to travel. The chauffeur got them into the right neighborhood, but picked the wrong house. Truman rang the doorbell, and "an unmistakably Republican-looking gentleman," as he put it, opened the door.

"Does Mr. Killion live here?" asked Truman. "No," the man said. Then giving Truman a close look, added, "By the way, I hope your feelings won't be hurt, but you look exactly like Harry Truman."

"I hope yours won't either," Truman replied," but I am Harry Truman."