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by William H. Benson

December 18, 2003

     On the morning of December 5, 1950 President Harry Truman was reading in the Washington Post a most unflattering commentary on Margaret’s singing performance the evening before in Washington.  With his short fuse ignited by this attack on his daughter, Truman grabbed a pen and notepad and dashed off a hot letter to Paul Hume, the Post’s reporter.

     “Mr. Hume:–I’ve just read your lousy review of Margaret’s concert.  I’ve come to the conclusion that you are an ‘eight-ulcer man on four-ulcer pay.’  Someday I hope to meet you.  When that happens you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beef steak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!”

     Hume made public Truman’s letter and then sold it.  The entire country was aghast by their President’s ripe language, and yet he claimed that “the parents of children understand and will stick up for me.”

     On April 10, 1951 President Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur from his command of as General of the Army after a series of defiant acts of insubordination.  Years later in a hot fury with his blue eyes still blazing at the recollection, Truman recalled that he told General Bradley to do it quickly because he did not want MacArthur to hear about it and resign. 

     “And I told Bradley, I says, ‘The @#$%* isn’t going to resign on me, I want him fired.’”

     In August of 1952 Harry had decided that he would not run for re-election for a third term, and so he threw his support towards the Governor of Illinois, Adlai Stevenson.  Unfortunately, the intellectual and cerebral Stevenson was on occasion on the receiving end of Truman’s vile and tempered language–Army talk he had learned in Battery D in World War I.  And Stevenson was not the intelligent campaigner that Truman was and had been.

     And then Truman was outraged when he sensed that Stevenson was disassociating himself away from Truman.  He fired off a letter.

     “It seems to me that the Presidential Nominee and his running-mate are trying to beat the Democratic President instead of the Republicans.  There is no mess in Washington.  I’ve come to the conclusion that if you want to run against your friends, they should retire from the scene and let you do it.  I’m telling you to take your crackpots, your high socialites with their noses in the air, run your campaign and win if you can.  Cowfever [he meant Estes Kefauver] could not have treated me any more shabbily than have you.”

     Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Republican candidate handily won the election, and on January 20, 1953, the day of his inauguration, Ike and Mamie drove up to the White House but then refused to get out of the car, expecting the Trumans to come out to them, a clear break in protocol.  The Trumans, humiliated by Ike’s lack of tact, walked to the car.  Conversation was terse and short.

     Years later when reflecting upon Ike’s snub, Truman said, “You can’t very well forget things of that kind.”  And he didn’t.  Straightforward, aggressive, outspoken, and determined, he spoke his mind as he saw and believed it.  To forgive and forget was not one of his tactics.  Rather than let some insult or offense simply pass him by, Truman boldly declared his opinion.

     Sam Rayburn described Truman, “So right on the big things; so wrong on the little ones.”  And it was the little things that would so detract him.  He did not take easily personal slights or snubs or criticisms.  There was never any delicate ground around which he would dance.

     Very few of us during the course of our lives can tell off a newspaper reporter or a presidential candidate or fire a general, even though we may want to.  It is not the way to keep a job or our reputation or friends.  Perhaps only lameduck Presidents and crusty men from Missouri can do so.  Truman cautioned, “Keep your bullets bright and your gunpowder dry.”

     The message of “Peace on earth, goodwill toward men” is a request to release the hatred, give up the need for revenge, and let your enemies be.  The ideal of peace is so easily proclaimed, but so difficult to do, even for Presidents.

     Have a merry, merry Christmas.