I picked that title for today’s post and then immediately thought of the funeral oration from Julius Caesar. But when I say Harry S Truman was an honorable man, I’m not using Mark Antony’s air quotes. Truman was the straightest of straight arrows. He was the kind of man who could actually say, “Polls don’t matter. All that matters is right and wrong,” and mean it sincerely.
What makes his virtuous story even more remarkable is that he climbed the ranks of public service in one of the most corrupt political machines of the early twentieth century: the Kansas City of T. J. Pendergast. Pendergast once instructed the future President to grant sinecures to a list of people who had done him favors. Truman just said “No.” I don’t know how he got away with it or why Pendergast continued to support him. But a few years later, Pendergast’s Democratic machine got Truman into the U. S. Senate. His fellows in the upper chamber avoided him at first, saying that there was one senator from Missouri and one senator from Pendergast. But he ended his first term with the respect of his colleagues, and in his second term, during the War, he headed a committee that rooted out waste, negligence, and fraud in military contracts, saving the U. S. billions of dollars and untold numbers of lives.
Listening to David McCullough read his biographical account of No. 33, it occurred to me that Truman seemed to deal with corrupt politicians in an unusual way. In McCullough’s account, Truman neither walked in the way of the sinners nor railed at them. He knew other politicians regularly received payment for votes or appointments. He knew crooked deals routinely placed unqualified people in public office. But he didn’t engage, and he didn’t go on crusade. Perhaps knowing that he could never stop these practices, it seems he simply didn’t let it bother him. Instead, he just kept on doing his own good work.
I’ve just been dealing with the Moen company. They made a faulty faucet that ruined our floor, and now they’re lying to keep from being responsible. That’s not a billion dollars, and no soldier’s life is at risk. But it’s corrupt business. I wish someone at that company understood the nobility of saying, “The buck stops here.” And I wish I could just not let it bother me.