This story is mostly about one of a kind, an individual who was both gracious and unassuming and didn’t change overall in spite of being put in a spotlight she never wanted. She was born Elizabeth Virginia Wallace but in her youth was generally Bessie, or Bess, the latter becoming how she was mostly known the rest of her life. A somewhat stout lady, she stood only 5’4” but overcame the lack of physical stature by standing tall in many ways throughout her life.
She first met her husband-to-be when they were classmates in the 5th grade and they were destined for life together from then on. It just so happens she wound up living longer…97 years, 8 months, than any other of the nation’s First Ladies. Naturally, you must know by now we’re referring to Bess Truman, the always by his side wife of President Harry Truman. She intentionally avoided public attention but was always there with ideas and suggestion at every level. She completely shunned press conferences held by before and after Presidential wives and never gave a full interview. The President knew her reticence marked an uncommonly knowledgeable person and he specifically referred to her as “The Boss.”
Although not in the public spotlight she did many wonderful things in the background. One such instance occurred when the wife of a Secret Service man’s wife became quite ill and Bess showed up at their home and cooked the family’s Thanksgiving Turkey dinner for them. I can’t imagine any other First Lady showing that kind of behind the scenes compassion.
At the time of President Truman’s retirement, 10 years before the Kennedy assassination, former Presidents didn’t have any Secret Service protection and they weren’t entitled to pensions. At that time the only Truman income was an Army pension of $111.96 a month and he absolutely was opposed to any of what he termed “commercialization” of the presidency and turned down all lucrative business offers or extravagant speaking fees. It’s no secret that other past holders of the office have done otherwise.
In order to make ends meet he was forced to sell off the family farm in Missouri. That was in 1958 and later that year Congress finally got around to granting annual pensions of $25,000 to former presidents, along with $50,000 for office expenses. Nowadays, the outgoing chief executives get a pension a bit over $200,000 and virtually unlimited office expense allowances. An example of the latter was a one year rent for Bill Clinton’s Harlem office exceeding a half-million dollars. Taxpayer money? Hmm-m. By the way, the Trumans moved back into the long-time family residence in Independence at 219 N. Delaware Street in Independence, Missouri unlike the highly expensive homes of some other past presidents who shall remain unnamed to avoid this sounding like political commentary.
Harry and Bess made it their home from their marriage in 1919 until his death in 1972. It was originally built in 1857 by her maternal grandfather with an addition in 1885. Guided tours are held there nowadays allowing people to see and realize the simple life there with its uncluttered commonness.
On March 21, 1969 on WDAF-TV in Kansas City I had an opportunity to cover another Truman story. Then-President Richard Nixon came to present the former Chief Executive with a Steinway piano that had been moved from the White House to Blair House, where the Trumans lived while the White House was being renovated. It went back to the main residence after work was finished and was now going to be placed in the Truman Library in
WDAF set up live coverage at the Truman home at 219 North Delaware and at the Library itself. I was at the latter because that’s where the presentation was to be made. With security clearance I was stationed in a small grassy area next to the driveway where limousines would arrive.
One of the station’s veteran photographers was a friend of Mr. Truman and had played poker with him. As a result, we were told the former President watched our newscasts. That partially explains what happened when the limos got there. As Mr. Truman got out of the vehicle I was on the air live and right next to the car. He saw me and strode directly over, stuck out his hand and asked, “What are you running for?” I treasured the film of the incident for years.
The next step was into a sort of vestibule of the main Library where the piano had been placed, and without much space it was crowded, but we had foreseen the situation and had a camera in position. I traipsed inside with the others and continued our coverage.
It was here that President Nixon said, among other things, “Looking back to the day when NATO came into being, when I was a freshman Congressman and you were President of the United States, I am proud of the fact that, along with many other Republicans, I supported the Marshall Plan and the Turkish aid program; but particularly, it is important to point out that without your leadership of the United States and the free world at the time, setting up that great alliance, we would not have had the strength which has avoided a world war since that time. I think that for a Republican President to say that about a man who served as President when I was in the Congress shows that where the defense of the United States is concerned, or peace is concerned, we are not Republicans or Democrats, but Americans.”
President Truman thanked him and Mrs. Truman asked the visitor, “Aren’t you going to play something?”
President Nixon at piano
He did and it was a song that Truman didn’t really like but had long been associated with him, the Missouri Waltz. He said, “They must have played it 30,000 times or more during that ’48 campaign and I just got tired of it.”
President Truman commented about the special facility, “I hope this library will give everyone a better understanding of the presidency and the government of the United States.”
I shall always remember one of his famous quotes. Back in his campaigning days constituents would often shout out, "Give 'em hell, Harry!" He said, "I don't give 'em hell, I just tell the truth and they think it's hell!"
Incidentally, one of the reporters I met covering the event was a relatively youthful Dan Rather, who fed a story to CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite. Dan was due to take over that job about a dozen years later.