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The Presidency by Hugh Sidey: Unadorned, but Proud

4 minute read
Hugh Sidey

At 77, Clark Clifford is paying back a little bit of what he and the nation owe Harry Truman. From Harvard to St. Louis, Clifford is lecturing almost daily about Truman and his times. Tuesday is Truman’s 100th birthday, and the celebrations climax with atown party in Independence, Mo., a joint sessionof Congress, a luncheon with Ronald Reagan as host, and a huge reception in Washing ton for the dwindling band of men and women who were with Truman and for the growing army of those who wish they had been.

It was 1942 when Clifford, then an unknown St. Louis lawyer, first met Truman, then an undistinguished Missouri Senator. Truman’s open face struck Clifford, who described the moment last week. “Some people’s faces mask their character. Truman’s face revealed his character: frank, open, considerate, strong, candid, and with what John Kennedy used to describe as ‘vigah.’ ”

The next meeting was in 1945, when Truman, three months after becoming President, was preparing for the Potsdam conference and Clifford, a Navy lieutenant, was going to run the naval aide’s office during the President’s absence. Truman, from his desk in the Oval Office, looked up at the 6-ft. 2-in. Clifford and said, “Big fellow, isn’t he?” There was the rock-bottom Truman again — unadorned, direct, kindly, humorous.

For five years Clifford was a close Truman aide of one kind or another, casting his discerning eye almost hourly over this extraordinary leader at work and play, or at least what Truman called play, like eight-handed poker where he mostly talked politics and people — and tended to be too optimistic about the strength of his cards.

Truman never changed. He had virtually no affectations, Clifford noted, and no inferiority complex. He viewed his days as a farmer as a blessing, a source of strength. In Truman’s mind that put him on a par with his Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, the aristocratic product of Groton, Yale and Harvard; not above, but certainly not below. They loved each other.

Truman’s loyalty to his people, good and bad, was unwavering, and so was theirs toward him. They would have died for him. Still would. Truman probably got the trait from his Army days, the greatest experience in his young life. He stood like a captain of artillery all his life. He walked 120 drill steps a minute until he no longer could.

Truman called up from his memory a precedent for almost every decision he made. Clifford calculated that Truman must have known more history than any other President since Wilson. He understood the reasons for, and evolution of, policy. The Truman Doctrine began with aid for Greece and Turkey because he saw the area as vital to freedom and stability for all Europe.

Truman, the dirt farmer, looked his very best in white tie and tails. He always dressed well: neat and tailored. The famed bow tie was the signal of a sporty mood. His gray hair turned white in the presidency, but it never thinned. His voice was nasal and flat, but he learned to use it to cut fog. Truman’s profanity was unimaginative but effective, though never used before women.

He loved to play simple Chopin and Beethoven pieces on the piano, not the Missouri Waltz. And he took a bourbon and branch water before dinner (one, not more). When he used his hand like an ax in the air, Clifford knew Truman was making serious points.

Truman was not a communicator, not a molder of men’s minds. His IQ was surely of medium range. He compensated by being absolutely uncaring about who got the credit for success, just as long as things worked. He was for the underdog, but not against the top dog unless provoked. He did not pretend ever to be something he was not, but also never pretended to be less than he was: President of the United States.

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