“Readers of good books, particularly books of biography and history, are preparing themselves for leadership. Not all readers become leaders. But all leaders must be readers.”
That’s the inscription on a plaque outside the last office of former President Harry S. Truman, which is in a corner of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum at Independence, Kan., his hometown. Truman’s grave, along with that of his wife Bess, lies only a few steps away in the library’s courtyard.
My wife Pat and I took time recently to visit the library while en route to Kansas City.
I had visited the William Jefferson Clinton Library in Little Rock several times, some of them while it was being built. While Truman’s presidency ended before my interest in politics and government began, I’ve always been intrigued by his administration.
Although not especially popular during his time in office, Truman has been treated kindly by history, and he certainly made some of the toughest decisions any American president ever faced.
Regardless of his politics, Truman indeed was a remarkable man, well-prepared for the presidency. He rose to the nation’s highest political office by starting near the bottom — as an administrative judge in Jackson County, Mo.
In 1934 he was elected to the U.S. Senate and distinguished himself there, particularly as chairman of the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, which became known as the Truman Committee.
In 1944 President Franklin D. Roosevelt was considered a heavy favorite to be elected to a fourth term, but his health was failing. Many conservative Democrats (yes, there were many back then) considered his second vice president, Henry A. Wallace, as too liberal and eccentric to be next in line for the presidency.
They told Roosevelt they’d fight the renomination of Wallace at the Democratic convention. They proposed instead the moderate Missouri senator, Harry S Truman. Roosevelt liked Wallace and didn’t know Truman well, but he reluctantly agreed.
That didn’t end the story, though. Wallace had plenty of support and led Truman by 90 votes on the first ballot. But Truman won over enough of the “other votes” on the second ballot to take a slim lead, and then more delegates shifted to give him a “landslide.”
Party conventions aren’t nearly as interesting today.
Truman spent little time in the vice president’s office. Roosevelt died suddenly 82 days later — on April 12, 1945 — and Truman, a decorated World War I veteran, became commander-in-chief at one of the most critical times in U.S. history.
Truman’s first term was bumpy, and he wasn’t expected to win re-election in 1948. His own party was badly split. Wallace led one third-party effort, while some Southern conservatives, who had managed to get Wallace dumped, led another. Truman was a most effective campaigner, at least for the campaigns of his time, and he won anyway. The picture of him holding a copy of the Chicago Tribune declaring “Dewey Defeats Truman” became a classic image.
His second term was even more difficult.
Most visitors don’t see much of the library, which contains a treasure trove of Truman’s presidential papers, including wartime documents and correspondence. However, the museum is big enough that you can spend a full day exploring its two levels. The top floor covers the presidential years, and the bottom floor his background and post-presidential years.
Truman actually supervised its construction so his office was completed early in the process, and he delighted in visits there from many political leaders, including presidents and future presidents. He remained active as “Mr. Citizen” almost up to his death on Dec. 26, 1972.
Truman’s library was only the second to be built. According to the National Archives, Roosevelt had the idea for the first and pledged part of his own estate to the effort. Friends and supporters formed a nonprofit corporation to raise private funds for construction after his death.
Truman decided to build a library, too, and encouraged Congress to pass the Presidential Libraries Act in 1955. Since then, every president has had a library, even non-readers.
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Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.