Sixty-four years ago this Sunday, Harry S. Truman delivered his farewell address to the nation. It was windy, and in my opinion rather dull. However, the undelivered version in Truman’s autobiography has nuggets of truth for President Obama, President-Elect Trump, and all Americans. Most importantly, Truman tells us the President is not a king or potentate but a human being who occupies the Office for four or eight years, and then returns to being a private citizen.
As with his official speech, Truman’s undelivered version had a laundry list of what he thought were his achievements. However, history always has the final say on that.
For example, Truman mentioned how the literally crumbling White House was rebuilt during his tenure. But it’s a footnote compared to his (unmentioned) transformative Executive Order 9981 (signed July 1948) that desegregated the U.S. Armed Forces.
Truman, a World War I veteran, knew of the singular service by African Americans in two world wars, and, as a matter of principal and practicality, segregation in the military was wrong. His 1947 civil rights commission recommended desegregation, but Truman knew the Southern congressional members (‘Dixicrats’) would never vote for it. Thus, Truman ordered the Armed Forces to desegregate via his power as commander-in-chief.
This change was profound. Just ask Colin Powell.
Regarding President Obama, the most important sentence of this ‘address’ is: “I wish my successor every success and happiness.” I believe he meant these words, as Truman was not a dissembler.
Did Truman like Eisenhower? Not much – they were political rivals, after all. But according to Truman biographer Robert H. Ferrell (Harry S. Truman: A Life, 1994), a revealing moment came while Truman and Eisenhower were waiting inside the Capitol before the swearing-in. Eisenhower was miffed when he learned that his son, an Army Major, was outside – Eisenhower thought it was done to embarrass him. Truman responded: “If it is, I embarrassed you because I ordered your son to come and he ought to be here.”
Does President Obama truly wish Mr. Trump every success and happiness? Does he wish the United States to prosper over the next four years?
As President Obama will be living in D.C. for the immediate future what will his role be?
While no-one expects him to be a cheerleader for a President Trump, Obama’s post-White House options range from being a constant scold and/or making heaps of money to literally rolling up his sleeves to make people’s lives better. Former President Jimmy Carter and his work for Habitat for Humanity is the best example of the latter. President Obama would be wise to follow Carter’s example if he desires a positive, meaningful post-presidency legacy.
Plus, being a political scold is a one-trick pony act that gets very boring very fast. Just look at MSNCB’s ratings. Racking in gobs of cash? That didn’t work well for Bill Clinton’s reputation and it helped keep Hillary from winning the Presidency.
On the other side, President-Elect Trump owes Harry Truman a great debt of gratitude. Truman’s final note in his ‘address’ is:
For the first time in the history of the executive branch an orderly turnover is being made. I have briefed my successor completely on all the affairs of the country, both foreign and domestic. All cabinet officers have been briefed, as well as new heads of bureaus where they have been appointed. It has never been done before when the newly elected president has been of the opposite political party.
Truman’s action involved more than sound common sense, it was personal. From the time Truman was nominated for the Vice Presidency in July 1944, to President Franklin Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, FDR had told Truman almost nothing about anything. Truman could not call for his own briefings without appearing disloyal to FDR. Further, one senses that FDR may have believed he was immortal as long as he was president (an explanation for his fourth term campaign). Thus a fully prepared vice president would put the lie to FDR’s myth.
Fortunately for Truman, his Senate career had him deeply involved in wartime affairs, as he was a member of the Appropriations subcommittee that dealt with military spending.
However, without Senator Truman’s defense experience, the incoming president of April 1945 would have found himself in a horrible situation. Germany surrendered only a few weeks after FDR’s death. In July, Truman attended the Potsdam Conference with Stalin and Churchill (later Clement Atlee) to discuss how to deal with a post-war Germany and hasten the end of the war with Japan. Unfortunately, the Conference also gave Stalin permission to take over the government of Poland – we cannot know if Truman had been better informed if this would have happened.
Harry Truman learned a hard lesson about the evils of unnecessary secrecy, and despite his successor being his campaign opponent; he felt America needed an orderly transition.
But the most important lesson for all of us is how the Office of the President is the ongoing magisterial executive, while the President is the person who happens to occupy the office for a term of years. After Truman left the White House, his wife called him ‘Mr. Citizen.’ Bess Truman had it right. In our glamorizing media obsession with the minutiae of the President’s life, we need to remember Bess’ admonition. In the end, the President inevitably returns to being ‘Mr. Citizen,’ and in that orderly return lies the strength of the United States.