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A vote for Harry



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They said he couldn’t win. In fact, the first editions of the Chicago Tribune said Harry had lost the 1948 election. The paper corrected the mistake in future editions.

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October 30, 2012 | 03:58 PM
I was overwhelmed with emotion the first time I stood in his kitchen.

I couldn't believe I was standing where Harry Truman stood.

And I couldn't believe how modest his house was. A common home for a common man.

I don't exactly know when Harry became my hero. Other heroes have passed by the wayside, often after I learned who they were behind their public personas.

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The more I learned about Harry, the more I liked him.

Harry spent much of his life in Independence, Mo., the city he moved back to after his presidency. As a child, his mother wouldn't let him play rough games for fear he'd break his glasses. He called himself a sissy.

But like my father, who ate bananas to reach the Army weight limit during World War I, Harry faked his way into the military by memorizing the eye chart. And when everyone else ran from a tough battle, he brought them back with a string of profanities. Harry rose to the occasion. That was the secret to Harry, biographer David McCullough said: "He could take it."

Like all of us, he failed sometimes. Harry may have failed more than most. He failed at being a farmer. He failed at being a haberdasher. He was the last president not to have a college degree. He even failed at being president sometimes, but they all do.

He rose through a Missouri political machine, but there wasn't a hint of scandal save something shady involving a road contract. That night Harry sat in a hotel room and spilled his guts out on paper. He knew what he had done wasn't quite right.

When the political boss died, Harry had just been sworn in as president. Everyone said Harry shouldn't go to the funeral. How would it look? But Harry went anyway. Why? He was my friend, said Harry, who was the only dignitary who found time on his calendar.

Harry never wanted to be president. He was a senator when President Franklin Roosevelt told him he had to be on the ticket as vice president for the good of the country. Harry wanted to retire. But Harry knew country came first, so he took the job.

FDR had never told Harry that the U.S. had an A-bomb. Harry didn't know until the day FDR died.

When Harry was sworn in he was like most people, if they were honest. He was scared to death.

"I don't know whether you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you," he told reporters, "but when they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on me."

The country thought he was way over his head. They said, "to err is Truman."

Harry agreed.

"There are probably hundreds of people better qualified to be president," he said. But he had a job to do, so he did it. That was Harry.

Harry was never afraid to make decisions. He knew that was part of the job. And when he did make a decision, he didn't lose sleep over it.

Even when he ordered the dropping of the A-bomb, which has been roundly criticized by revisionist historians, Truman never doubted he made the right decision.

That's not necessarily the right way to look at life, but it was Harry.

He made what he thought was the right decision even when those he most admired said otherwise. Secretary of State George Marshall was Harry's hero, but when Marshall said he was going to vote against Harry if the president recognized Israel, Harry did it anyway.

Harry came from the South and used the racial slurs common for his day. He was even a member of the KKK for a short time. But when it came time to integrate the military Harry did it, even though his mother told him not to.

He said, "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog."

When he ran for a second term in 1948 for a job he didn't want in the first place, I think it was because Harry wanted to prove people wrong. In a poll of 50 experts, all 50 said he had no chance. His mother-in-law didn't even think he could win.

Harry didn't wait until the votes were counted on election night. He knew that the sun would come up whether he won or lost. So he went to bed and woke up a winner.

He was called "Give 'em Hell Harry," but famously uttered "I never gave anyone hell. I just told the truth and they thought it was hell."

Harry was a common man in office and out. He knew the first names of the White House help and asked them about their families.

And despite Harry's well-earned reputation for using salty language, he was a gentleman in mixed company.

When he came home after his presidency the press asked him what important thing he would do first. "Take the grips up to the attic," he said. "Grips" was an old-fashioned term for suitcase. Harry was an old-fashioned man.

After the presidency, he lived off his World War I pension and never got air conditioning for his home. He refused lucrative speaking engagements saying they didn't want him, they wanted the presidency, and that wasn't for sale.

It took years before he accepted Secret Service protection, and then only grudgingly. Into his 80s, he walked the two miles from his home to his presidential library, talking to young and old along the way.

Revisionist historians have now named Harry among the great presidents. I'm not sure that's true. I like Harry because he was a common man who made it to the White House and did the best he could.

Even as a person, Harry had flaws. "He could be intemperate, profane, touchy, too quick with simplistic answers," McCullough said.

In his old age, Harry started believing his own press clippings.

But Harry was real.

And Harry was determined.

And Harry wanted what was best for the country.

Most of all, Harry could rise to the occasion.

Maybe those things don't make a great president anymore.

Maybe they never did.

And never mind that Harry's been dead 50 years.

If I were casting a ballot for the best man this and every year, Harry would get my vote.

Halverson is editor and general manager of the Regional News.

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