Harry Truman fooled us all

When the Washington Post reported in 2007 that Bill Clinton had pocketed nearly $ 40 million in speech fees since leaving the White House six years earlier, I wrote a column regretting that another former managing director has shown himself so eager to “take advantage of the prestige of the presidency for a lot of money”.

Well no all former general manager. While Clinton followed in the footsteps of George HW Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, a president had been different. Quoting historian David McCullough, I noted that Harry Truman left the White House under such dire circumstances that he and his wife Bess needed a bank loan to pay their bills. Nonetheless, Truman insisted that he would not take advantage of his name and influence. As McCullough recounted in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Truman’s sole intention “was to do nothing – not accept any position, lend his name to any organization or transaction – that would exploit or market prestige and dignity. of the office of president “.

Moved by Truman’s apparent financial distress, Congress eventually passed the Former Presidents Act, which provides former presidents with lavish pensions, furnished offices, lucrative staff, and travel allowances.

There’s just one thing wrong with this oft-repeated tale of Truman’s economic desperation. According to law professor and journalist Paul Campos, this is completely false. In an explosive article in New York Magazine, Campos shows that Truman shamelessly and repeatedly lied about the state of his finances in order to blame Congress for passing the Former Presidents Act, which would provide him with taxpayer-funded benefits he didn’t had no need.

The discoveries of Campos are breathtaking. Truman’s post-presidential shortage story has long been taken for granted, and his refusal to relinquish his public heritage for private gain has undoubtedly contributed to his dramatic rebound in public esteem. Truman left the White House with the lowest approval rating in modern presidential history; today it is ranked among the best presidents of all time.

But Campos brings the recipes. With the cooperation of the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library, he spent months reviewing the financial records of the 33rd President, many of which only became available with the publication in 2011 of Bess Truman’s personal papers.

“Harry Truman was a very rich man the day he left the White House,” Campos writes, “and he became much richer in the five and a half years between that day and the FPA’s passage.”

The proof for these jerky claims comes from none other than Truman himself. In a handwritten will and kept with Bess Truman’s papers, Truman estimated his net worth at the end of his presidency to be $ 650,000 – an amount including $ 250,000 in savings bonds, 150,000 $ in cash and land valued at an estimated $ 250,000. Adjusted for inflation, $ 650,000 in 1953 is the equivalent of $ 6.6 million in 2021.

Far from being a step from the hospice to his return to private life, writes Campos, Truman’s own private calculations show that his income was among the richest 1% of American households. Which, in hindsight, makes sense: As president, he received one of the most generous salaries in America – in 1949, the presidential salary was increased to $ 100,000 a year, an amount of a value of over $ 1.1 million today. Congress also authorized an annual presidential expense account of $ 50,000, which Truman could draw upon at will, no questions asked. Truman hid the money in “the little White House safe,” he acknowledged in the financial statement he drew up in 1953, then transferred it to a safe at the Columbia National Bank in Kansas City.

“The money in the box … came out of the [yearly] A $ 50,000 expense account that was not responsible for taxes, ”Truman noted in his draft will.

Over the next five years, Truman lobbied for a federal pension for former presidents, even go to tv to complain that “the United States government is putting its business leaders in the grass. They just have the right to starve. Yet during those five years, Truman’s net worth skyrocketed. According to a count he made of his assets in January 1959, his fortune had climbed to $ 1.04 million ($ 9.7 million in 2021 dollars).

Why would Truman have cried the poor mouth it is emphatically something that only psychologists can explain. But it is clear that the popular origin story of the Old Presidents Act needs to be revised. Truman was not in dire straits, it was just a self-created myth. Once again, we are reminded that the demands of politicians should always be viewed with skepticism. And also remembered that the truth has a way of revealing itself.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on twitter @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to Arguable, its weekly newsletter, visit bitly.com/Arguable.

Sara R. Cicero