Jeff Jacoby / July 29, 2021

Harry Truman Conned Us All

Truman wasn’t in dire straits; that was a self-created myth.

When the Washington Post reported in 2007 that Bill Clinton had pocketed nearly $40 million in speaking fees since leaving the White House six years earlier, I wrote a column regretting that yet another former chief executive had proved so eager “to leverage the prestige of the presidency for big bucks.”

Well, not every former chief executive. While Clinton followed in the footsteps of George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, and Gerald Ford, one president had been different. Citing historian David McCullough, I noted that Harry Truman had left the White House in such straitened circumstances that he and his wife Bess needed a bank loan to pay their bills. Nonetheless, Truman insisted he would not cash in on his name and influence. As McCullough recounted in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Truman’s only intention “was to do nothing — accept no position, lend his name to no organization or transaction — that would exploit or commercialize the prestige and dignity of the office of the President.”

Moved by Truman’s financial distress and stirred by his integrity, Congress eventually passed the Former Presidents Act, which provides former presidents with a lavish pension, furnished offices, and lucrative staff and travel allowances. Today, former presidents typically collect $1 million or more annually in public funds. It is money none of them would miss, since they are all multimillionaires (in the case of Donald Trump, a billionaire), and there have been bipartisan calls in recent years to rein in or repeal the law. Yet the law remains on the books, perhaps in part because of the enduring memory of Harry Truman, the poor but upright ex-president whose plight was the catalyst for enacting the law in the first place.

There’s just one thing wrong with that oft-repeated narrative about Truman’s economic desperation. According to law professor and journalist Paul Campos, it is completely false. In a bombshell article in New York Magazine, Campos shows that Truman lied shamelessly and repeatedly about the state of his finances in order to guilt-trip Congress into passing the Former Presidents Act, which would provide him with taxpayer-funded benefits for which he had no need.

Campos’s findings are jaw-dropping. The story of Truman’s post-presidential penury has long been taken as undoubted fact, and his self-denying refusal to trade on his public legacy for private gain doubtless contributed to his dramatic rebound in public esteem. Truman left the White House with the lowest approval rating in modern presidential history; today he is ranked among the best presidents ever.

But Campos brings the receipts. With the cooperation of the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library, he spent months examining the 33rd president’s financial records, many of which became available only with the 2011 release of Bess Truman’s personal papers.

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

The evidence for those jolting assertions comes from none other than Truman himself. In a will drafted in his own hand and kept with Bess Truman’s papers, Truman estimated that his net worth at the end of his presidency was $650,000 — a sum comprising $250,000 in savings bonds, $150,000 in cash, and land worth an estimated $250,000. Adjusted for inflation, $650,000 in 1953 is the equivalent of $6.6 million in 2021. And that sum didn’t include the $600,000 book deal Truman signed one month after leaving the White House.

Far from being one step from the poorhouse on his return to private life, Campos writes, Truman’s own private calculations show that his income was among the top 1 percent of American households. Which, in hindsight, makes sense: As president, he received one of the most generous salaries in America — in 1949, presidential pay was raised to $100,000 annually, an amount worth more than $1.1 million today. Congress also authorized a $50,000 annual presidential expense account, on which Truman could draw at will, no questions asked. Truman stashed the money in “the little safe in the White House,” he acknowledged in the financial statement he wrote in 1953, then transferred it to a safety deposit box at the Columbia National Bank in Kansas City.

Truman lobbied hard for a federal pension for ex-presidents. He went on Edward R. Murrow’s TV show, “See It Now,” to complain that the United States abandons its former chief executives. “They’re just allowed to starve,” said Truman, who by then was worth a fortune.

“The cash in the box at the Columbia … came out of the [yearly] $50,000 expense account that was not accountable for taxes,” Truman specified in his draft will. “Bonds, land, and cash all come from savings of presidential salary and free expense account.”

Over the next five years, Truman lobbied hard for a federal pension for ex-presidents, even going on TV to complain that “the United States government turns its chief executives out to grass. They’re just allowed to starve.” Yet during those five years, Truman’s net worth soared. According to an accounting he made of his assets in January 1959, his wealth had climbed to $1.04 million ($9.7 million in 2021 dollars).

Why Truman would have cried poor mouth so insistently is something perhaps only psychologists can explain. But clearly, the popular origin story of the Former Presidents Act is due for a revision. Truman wasn’t in dire straits; that was a self-created myth. Once again we are reminded that politicians’ claims should always be regarded with skepticism. And reminded as well that truth has a way of revealing itself.

(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).

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