Vice-President Harry Truman’s life changed on Thursday, April 12, 1945. That was the day Franklin D. Roosevelt died and Truman became the 33rd president of the United States.
To virtually everyone, including himself, Truman was an inauspicious heir. Journalist A.J. Baime’s The Accidental President nicely captures the general bemusement.
Born in small-town Missouri in 1884, there was nothing particularly distinguished about Truman. If you searched his record for some accomplishment, you’d find relatively little to celebrate.
He didn’t have a university degree. His favourite pastimes were playing poker, sipping bourbon, listening to classical music (Mozart, Beethoven and Bach were favourites) and reading historical biographies.
His financial resources were modest. As vice-president, he lived in a five-room apartment with his wife, daughter and mother-in-law (who wasn’t fond of him). The family had no maid.
Truman’s major business venture, a haberdashery shop in Kansas City, opened in 1919 and went bankrupt in 1922. It wasn’t until 1934 that the debts were finally paid off.
According to Baime, the Trumans’ April 1945 bank account was worth $4,251.12, against which there was an outstanding loan in excess of $3,000. “In a town full of East Coast money and stuffed pinstripe suits, guests of the Trumans gathered quickly that the family had little means.”
How did such an undistinguished everyman become vice-president?
After the failure of his haberdashery business, Truman gravitated to local politics as a protégé of the Democratic machine run by Kansas City political boss Tom Pendergast. Courtesy of this connection, he won a U.S. Senate seat in 1934 and held it in 1940, even after Pendergast was jailed for tax evasion.
During his second Senate term, Truman elevated his profile through committee work designed to root out waste and profiteering, parlaying it into a March 1943 Time magazine cover story. So when events compelled Roosevelt to look for a replacement vice-president in 1944, Truman was one of the short-listed candidates.
Roosevelt’s sitting vice-president, Henry Wallace, was viewed with considerable skepticism by important chunks of the Democratic leadership. His political views were too far to the left and his personality tended to the eccentric. With Roosevelt’s shaky health, it was better not to take any chances.
And always cunningly political, Roosevelt went along with the prevailing view of the party’s power brokers. Wallace would be replaced and Roosevelt would accept someone the party was comfortable with. After all, it wasn’t as if the vice-president was going to have a meaningful role or any power.
During his early months in the job, one wonders whether Truman ever recalled the words of a previous incumbent. John Nance Garner, who spent eight years as Roosevelt’s first vice-president, famously opined that the office “isn’t worth a pitcher of warm piss.”
Certainly, Truman found himself with virtually nothing to do. Other than presiding over the Senate and casting the odd tie-breaking vote, a vice-president’s only constitutionally designated function is to succeed to the presidency in the event of the president being removed from office, including by death.
Roosevelt, of course, could have created a substantive role for Truman. But he didn’t. In fact, he made little or no attempt to groom Truman for succession.
Given Roosevelt’s extremely poor health, it’s hard to see this as anything other than irresponsible. Or perhaps it was just another example of a tendency towards megalomania. Roosevelt had, to put it gently, an exalted conception of his own abilities and general uniqueness.
On April 12, 1945, Roosevelt’s health finally caught up with him. After suffering a cerebral haemorrhage, he was pronounced dead at 4:35 p.m. Washington time.
Truman was in the Senate at that moment but his thoughts were probably on the evening’s planned poker game. Earlier, he’d made the arrangements with an old army buddy, directing him towards a source of supply for the whiskey that would lubricate the proceedings.
Urgently summoned to the White House, he was told the news. As he later put it, “I had hurried to the White House to see the president and when I arrived I found I was the president.”
After he was sworn in, Truman received his first intimation of the atomic bomb, a secret about which he previously knew nothing. It was a tough beginning.
Then again, he once put it succinctly: “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps just a little bit.
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