Truman and Pendergast
Oct 25, 1999, Vol. 5, No. 06 • By MICHAEL BARONE
Was Harry Truman a great president, as has generally been conceded in the last twenty years? Or was he a corrupt bumbler, as was generally believed in 1952, when not only Republicans but Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson casually blamed him for "the mess in Washington"?
We have absorbed from Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s poll (mostly of liberals) on the greatness of presidents the habit of awarding them one-word verdicts -- "near great," "failure," and the like. But one word will not do to characterize Truman, or most other presidents for that matter. Truman was in some ways a great president, in others a disaster, and in still other ways everything in between.
What kind of man was he? Useful information comes from Truman and Pendergast, Robert Ferrell's short study of the relationship between Truman and the Kansas City political boss who was his great patron for the first years of his political career. And more can be found in The Kansas City Investigation, a report written by Rudolph H. Hartmann, the Treasury Department investigator who brought about Pendergast's prosecution for income tax evasion in 1939. Ferrell unearthed Hartmann's manuscript from "the Morgenthau diaries," which the longtime treasury secretary deposited in the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library. The University of Missouri Press has published it in a handsome format along with Ferrell's book.
Ferrell has published many books on Truman; his latest contains material he has not before had a chance to package. Truman and Pendergast reads like the reminiscences of a charming old-timer with political stories to tell -- a bit cryptic here, gossipy there, with a cast of characters once familiar to every political insider in Missouri but now brought fitfully back to life by one of the few who still have memories of the old days, a great American political story rescued from the dusty shelves of archives by a first-class scholar.
Truman was never quite the utterly ordinary man of legend. He came from Jackson County gentry; his grandfathers were big landowners in a county which was also the site of Kansas City, bound in time to become entirely metropolitan. Young Harry had a serious, though not a college, education; he read widely in history; he took piano lessons from a teacher who had taken lessons from Paderewski, the famous pianist and, at one point, prime minister of Poland. Midwestern culture was not as barren as Sinclair Lewis has had us believe.
Truman, like his father, had an almost Irish capacity for not making money. For years before the First World War, he worked as a farmer following a mule plowing furrows. It did not earn him enough money to marry his childhood sweetheart Bess Wallace, who lived with her mother in a seventeen-room house in the county seat of Independence. Mrs. Wallace was a horrifying battle-axe who, although she lived until 1952, never admitted that Truman had amounted to anything.
Harry Truman's genius was joining. He joined the Masons and in time ascended to the thirty-third degree. He maintained faithful membership in the Baptist church. He once lived in a rooming house in Kansas City with one of Dwight Eisenhower's brothers (did they ever think that he and Ike would both become president?). He joined the Army Reserve and served as an artillery officer in France, showing genuine bravery and skill. He came back to Kansas City, married Bess, and went into the haberdashery business with his friend Eddie Jacobson -- and in the recession of 1921-22 went bankrupt, with a staggering debt of $ 8,900.
At that point he was thirty-eight and in desperate need of a job. Enter Tom Pendergast, the son of Irish immigrants and boss of the First Ward of Kansas City since the death of his brother in 1911. Jackson County government was headed by a board of three judges, one elected county-wide, one from Kansas City, and one from the eastern district, including Independence and the farming townships that had less than one-fourth of the county's population. In 1922 Truman ran for the eastern district, got the support of the high-minded editor of the Independence Examiner, and then of Pendergast. He was a beneficiary of malapportionment. One of the attractions of the job was that its holders could not be sued on personal debts.