President Harry Truman, and the sign he made famous…
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Harry S. Truman [1884-1972] was the 33rd President of the United States (1945–1953). The final running mate of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944, Truman succeeded to the presidency on April 12, 1945, when Roosevelt died… Under Truman, the U.S. successfully concluded World War II[, but] in the aftermath of the conflict, tensions with the Soviet Union increased, marking the start of the Cold War.
Simply put, Harry was an uncomplicated shoot from the lip politician with an equally uncomplicated sense of right and wrong. And so, looking at today’s politicians – and to borrow a phrase from the 1860 presidential election – we might say, “Oh, for an hour of Truman.”
For one thing, Truman was noted for his “refreshing candor.” For another, Harry was noted for being open-minded. He was willing to listen to “what the other fella has to say.” (A trait this blog seeks to promote.) And he was known for his avid reading, much of it from history books:
There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know… [G]o back to old Hammurabi, the Babyonian emperor [shown below right]. Why, he had laws that covered everything, adultery and murder and divorce, everything… Those people had the same problems as we have now. Men don’t change.
See Plain speaking: an oral biography of Harry S. Truman, Merle Miller, Berkley Publishing NY (1973), at page 26. (Which book also supplied the quotes that follow, unless otherwise noted.)
See also Code of Hammurabi – Wikipedia, for an idea of the kind of things that haven’t changed much. Another thing that hasn’t changed is the number of “religious phonies” around. (I Googled that term and got 2,720,000 results.) Truman had something to say about them too:
About this counterfeit business. My Grandfather Young felt the same way. We had a church in the front yard… And the Baptists and the Methodists and all of them used it. And Grandfather Young when I was six years old … told me that whenever the customers in any of those denominations prayed too loud in the Amen corner, you’d better go home and lock your smokehouse… And I found that to be true. I’ve never cared much for the loud pray-ers [sic] or for people who do that much going on about religion.
(Miller, 56) That would seem especially true of politicians today who tend to “wear their religion on their sleeves.” (Or they might attack their opponents’ religion, or claim they’re “better Christians,” or otherwise use religion for their own benefit. And incidentally, Jesus felt the same way Harry did about people who “pray too loud.” See Matthew 6:5-6, and Praying in public.)
For another thing, he didn’t have much use for the reporters – the “media” – of his day.
Newspapermen, and they’re all a bunch of lazy cusses, once one of them writes something, the others rewrite it and rewrite it, and they keep right on doing it without ever stopping to find out if the first fellow was telling the truth or not.
(Miller, 251) On the other hand, he agreed with what Thomas Jefferson – shown at left – said about the matter: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” See Jefferson on Politics & Government: Freedom of the Press.
Then there was one of Truman’s best-known statements, “the buck stops here.” It seems that Harry was quite the avid poker player, and so quite familiar with passing the buck:
The expression [came] from poker, in which a marker or counter … was used to indicate the person whose turn it was to deal. If the player did not wish to deal he could pass [the “buck“] to the next player. Another [possible source] is to the French expression “bouc émissaire” meaning scapegoat, whereby passing the “bouc” is equivalent to passing the blame or onus. The terms “bouc émissaire” and scapegoat both originate from an Old Testament reference (Lev. 16:6-10) to an animal that was ritually made to carry the burden of sins, after which the “buck” was sent or “passed” into the wilderness to expiate them.
In another story that Truman liked to tell – quoted in Miller’s book at page 297 – a reporter once asked Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (shown at right), “What’s the secret of your success?” Justice Holmes reportedly answered, “Young man, the secret of my success is that at a very early age I discovered that I’m not God.”
And finally, unlike many politicians today, Harry Truman hesitated to ever call anyone a liar. (See for example The accusation of lying – what politics reveals about our need for the truth.) That was a policy based on his reading – of all things – the four Gospels:
I’ve always done considerable reading of the Bible… I liked the New Testament stories best, especially the Gospels. And when I was older, I was very much interested in the way those fellas saw the same things in a different manner. A very different manner, and they were all telling the truth. I think that’s the first time I realized that no two people ever see the same thing in quite the same way, and when they tell it the way they saw it, they aren’t necessarily lying if it’s different… And that is one of the reasons that when I got into a position of power I always tried to keep in mind that just because I saw something in a certain way didn’t mean that others didn’t see it in a different manner. That’s why I always hesitated to call a man a liar unless I had the absolute goods on him. (E.A.)
So to sum it all up: 1) Harry Truman was open-minded, willing to listen to “what the other fella has to say.” 2) He was an avid reader, and especially of history. (See also Quote by Harry S. Truman: “The only thing new in the world is the history you do not know.”) 3) He didn’t “wear his religion on his sleeve.” 4) He thought most reporters were lazy, but recognized that we need them to function politically. 5) Not only was he an avid poker player – and thus more of a regular guy – but Harry Truman also realized he “wasn’t God.” And finally, 7) he hesitated to ever call another politician a liar unless he “had the absolute goods on him.”
Now that’s the kind of “delightfully retro” politician we could use today…
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The writers of the Four Gospels, as noted by Harry Truman above…
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The upper image is courtesy of Everyone Is Butchering ‘the Buck Stops Here,’ which said the phrase did not mean a president can be blamed for everything bad that happens on his watch, as used today. Instead it was aimed at “Monday morning quarterbacking” (also known as “whining“):
“You know, it’s easy for the Monday morning quarterback to say what the coach should have done, after the game is over. But when the decision is up before you – and on my desk I have a motto which says The Buck Stops Here’ – the decision has to be made.”
See also Harry S. Truman – Wikipedia, source of the brief biography above.
Re: the Code of Hammurabi, vis-a-vis things that have been around for awhile. For one thing, the code was among the first to be “arranged in orderly groups, so that everyone who read the laws would know what was required of them.” (This was sometime around 1750 B.C.) Also, the code is “one of the earliest examples of the idea of presumption of innocence,” and suggested that “both the accused and accuser have the opportunity to provide evidence.” And finally, “its copying in subsequent generations indicates that it was used as a model of legal and judicial reasoning.
The image of Hammurabi adjacent to the Truman quote about him is courtesy of the Hammurabi link contained in the article, Code of Hammurabi – Wikipedia. The full caption reads: “The bas-relief of Hammurabi at the United States Congress.” That is, the entrance to the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives features 23 marble portraits of historical figures, one of whom is Hammurabi:
The 23 marble relief portraits over the gallery doors of the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol depict historical figures noted for their work in establishing the principles that underlie American law. They were installed when the chamber was remodeled in 1949-1950.
(Emphasis added.) Hammurabi is included because his code – noted by Truman – is “recognized in legal literature as one of the earliest surviving legal codes.”
The image of Thomas Jefferson is courtesy of Thomas Jefferson – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. The caption: “Thomas Jefferson, Official White House Portrait, by Rembrandt Peale, 1805.”
The image of Justice Holmes is courtesy of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. – Wikipedia. For more pithy quotes from the good Justice, see Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. – Wikiquote. Two samples: “Lawyers spend their professional careers shoveling smoke,” and, “The young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions.”
The lower image is courtesy of Peter Paul Rubens: The Four Evangelists, which noted that “Rubens portrayed the four evangelists while working together on their texts. An angel helps them… Each gospel author can be identified by an attribute. The attributes were derived from the opening verses of the gospels. From left to right: Luke (bull), Matthew (man [angel]), Mark (lion), and John (eagle).” See also, Four Evangelists – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
Re: “shooting from the lip.” See AU theatre presents “Give ‘em Hell, Harry”, noting Truman was a man who “wasn’t afraid to ‘shoot from the lip’ and put himself on the line for what he believed in, not for what was necessary to win an election.” For other views Google “shoot from the lip.”
Note too that “shooting from the lip” is an ironic twist on the phrase, “shooting from the hip.” See What Does “Shoot from the Hip” Mean? – wiseGEEK, re: an American expression referring “to a decision that is reached and implemented without stopping to consider the possible outcomes of the decision.” The site noted two schools of thought: one that the practice is rash and likely to produce worse consequences. The second school relies on an individual using instincts drawn on his or her collective experience; “Proponents of this approach note that many opportunities are lost because time is wasted going over the minutiae of how to respond.”
See also the King James Version of Psalm 22:7-8: “All they that see me laugh me to scorn: they shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying, He trusted on the LORD that he would deliver him: let him deliver him, seeing he delighted in him.” (Emphasis added.)
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Re: “Oh, for an hour of Truman.” See History for Kossacks: Election of 1860 – Daily Kos, which – speaking of the interlude between Lincoln’s election and actually taking office – noted:
Lincoln found himself armed with nothing but words to stop the South from seceding before he could even take office… President James Buchanan, nearing 70 … looked at the Constitution and saw his hands being tied by a lack of specific instruction. The cry went up from frustrated members of his own party: “Oh, but for an hour of Jackson!”
See also AP US History Chapters 17-19 flashcards | Quizlet, which added that “Old Buck” – Buchanan’s nickname – “almost went out of his way to prove he was no ‘Old Hickory.’”
Re: “Grandfather Young.” According to some sources, “Solomon” Young provided Truman’s middle name, “Harry Solomon Truman.” But the consensus is that his parents couldn’t decide whether to honor Young, the maternal grandfather, or paternal grandfather Andrew Shippe Truman. So the parents decided to go with “the letter ‘S’ by itself.” See snopes.com: Harry Truman’s Middle Name.
The end-quote, on the differences in the Gospels, included this “edited for content,” from page 214:
I think I told you, in school we usually only had one man’s point of view of the history of something, and I’d go to the library and read three or four, sometimes as many as half a dozen, versions of the same thing, the same incident, and it was always the differences that interested me. And you had to keep in mind that they were all telling what for them was the truth. (Emphasis in original.)
Re: “discovered that I’m not God” quote. From an interview on Truman’s firing General McArthur.
Another quote came from Dean Acheson, Truman’s Secretary of State, as to “why the press did such an abysmally poor job” (emphasis in original) in writing and reporting on Truman as president:
It’s as if the correspondents had made up their minds when Mr. Truman became President that he was a country bumpkin, and I am afraid a great many of them never changed their minds.
(Miller, 376, referring to a problem that seems to plague some reporters “even to this day.”) See also Dean Acheson – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
A final note: This column-post was originally published on October 27, 2014, as On Harry Truman and the next election.