Home Again in Independence

In 1948 I cast my first vote for President Truman. By then my loyalty to him wasn’t just that he was from my home state of Missouri and had taken on the burdens left to him by the death of President Roosevelt. He had needed to make some hard decisions of great importance to the United States, and he had grown in stature. I had lost the embarrassment I had felt over his Midwestern twang and the uncouth expressions he sometimes used when he was angry over any slight to his wife, Bess, or daughter Margaret. He accepted and respected the responsibilities of the high office he occupied (“The buck stops here”) and his friendly, down-to-earth manner had won over many of us who had compared his style with Roosevelt’s patrician image and distinctive voice.

At the end of his elected term of office, the Truman family returned to Independence, Missouri. They were surprised and delighted at the welcome they received from the townspeople. I think of the former presidents who never had a chance to return to their hometowns—for instance, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Kennedy. What plans had they thought of for their lives after leaving the presidency?  What must it be like, that first day out of office, with no bands playing “Hail to the Chief” or staff and servants to obey one’s every wish and order?

Truman lacked the great wealth so many former presidents had for financial security. Bess and he had saved a modest amount from his former annual salary of $100,000. He had no Secret Service agents for protection. The Trumans didn’t even own a car. Truman and several of his relatives jointly owned a small farm and the family home on Independence Avenue. For a time, he had hardly any prospects of a future career and he adamantly refused to endorse any product or engage in any sort of commercial venture. It was an offer from Life magazine to publish his memoirs in installments for $600,000 that provided the 33rd President of the United States with an income.

For the first few days again in his hometown, Truman felt lonely and unsettled. He missed his friends in Washington, especially Dean Acheson, his former secretary of state with whom he had become close in recent years. He felt as if he “rattled around” in his big, almost empty house.* “‘I still don’t feel like a completely private citizen and I don’t suppose I ever will,’ he told a reporter. … ‘You can’t always be what you want to be after you’ve been under those bright lights.’”

To become reacquainted with Independence, he resumed his daily, early morning walks. He developed a routine of a certain route, stopping to greet early risers who shook his hand and greeted him with, “Welcome home, Mr. President.” As the days and months progressed, his well-wishers grew in numbers. For privacy, eventually he decided to retain the gate and iron fence surrounding the family’s property that he had once thought to remove. Cars began slowing down as they drove along Independence Avenue and drivers pointed to a certain house, “That’s where he lives … President Truman.”

In the early 1970s, a friend of mine moved to Independence. One day her neighbor drove her to the place where one could obtain a driver’s license. She got in line to register. She became aware that someone had gotten in line behind her. She began to hear people murmuring and whispering nearby. She felt that someone tap her on the shoulder and say, “Do you know that gentleman?”  She turned halfway around. An elderly man wearing glasses and carrying a cane pointed up to a portrait of Truman hanging on the wall.

“Yes, that’s President Truman,” she said.

“What do you think of him? Do you think he did a pretty good job?” the man asked her.

“I can’t really say,” she answered, “because I was too young when he was in office. But my dad sure did like him.” My friend said that she did a double-take and finally recognized that the man in line behind her looked almost exactly like the portrait on the wall.

The buzzing increased and a bystander told her, “Don’t you know that’s President Truman you’re talking to?”

My friend was mortified and began to apologize. She didn’t tell me what followed, but I can guess that down-home Harry Truman had a good laugh over the incident. I also have a feeling that she wasn’t the only person he had fun fooling this way during his final years in Independence.

*McCullough, David, “Truman.”  (The last chapter of this mammoth, one-volume biography gives a fascinating, heartwarming description of Truman’s life after leaving The White House.)