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The Man From Independence
Truman Changed Washington—Not Vice Versa
Will Bagley
Published: 10/29/2000 Edition: Final Section: Utah Page: B1

Independence, Missouri Americans are surviving the drama and suspense of another presidential campaign, which makes us all lonesome for the good old days when politics was more than advertising. This campaign suggests Utah folk singer Bruce Phillips might be right: If God had wanted us to vote, he would have given us candidates.

A visit to Independence is tonic for anyone tired of today's bland, prepackaged candidates. You cannot visit this charming small town without encountering a real leader, an ordinary American who is now regarded as one of our greatest presidents. Before he went to Washington in 1935 as senator from Missouri, Harry S. Truman had been a farmer, artillery captain, failed haberdasher and a county judge. He viewed his elevation to the presidency as pretty much an accident.

Shortly after taking the oath of office, Truman wrote his wife from "the great white sepulcher of ambition and reputation," saying the presidency made him feel like "last year's bird's nest." For Truman, the White House was a prison, but he did the job with integrity and guts. At the end of his presidency, Truman had lower approval ratings than Richard Nixon did as an unindicted co-conspirator in Watergate. But he had made hard choices and stuck to his principles.

You can bet Truman never made a decision based on the polls. And he never forgot who he was and where he came from. He liked to say that Missouri was famous for its characters "and the most notorious are Mark Twain, Jesse James and me." When the Trumans left Washington, they went home to 219 N. Delaware. The White House usher said he had seen the place transform the Hoover and the Roosevelt families, but the only change in the Truman family was that daughter Margaret had grown taller.

The former president hoped to return to the quiet life of small-town America, but crowds gathered at his front gate every morning to shake his hand. "I realize they've come to see the striped mule of Missouri," he said. "I don't want to disappoint them." If the White House didn't change Truman, Truman in the White House changed America. The man from Independence ended World War II, rebuilt Europe and Japan, corralled Joseph Stalin, integrated the armed forces and (against every expert's advice) recognized Israel.

Harry Truman was a relentless foe of bigotry. He defied the power of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. "I had the best fight with them you ever saw and whipped 'em to a standstill!" he said after marching into a Klan hall to confront their threats. They were "a bunch of damn cowards hiding behind bed sheets." Truman thought the Mormon exodus to the West was "the most remarkable march in the history of civilization" and fondly recalled Salt Lake City as one of the most beautiful cities in the country. But he noted that a violent prejudice against Mormons survived in his hometown into the 1960s. Old Independence families wouldn't "have anything to do with Mormons." "It's prejudice," he said, "and it doesn't make any sense, but it's there."

Truman summed up his feelings about the presidency in 1955. He believed that Washington lobbyists represented about ten percent of the people. The rest had only one man elected to speak for them, the president of the United States. "When he goes back on them, we are in a bad way."

Will Bagley is a Western historian who is still trying to decide how to vote.

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