I’m saddened beyond words at the passing of my friend Steve. Here we are together on our way to the “Exhibitionism” interactive exhibit about the Rolling Stones, back in February of 2017.
I miss you, Steve!
The best way to remember Charlie Watts is by listening to his music.
If you happen to have the soundtrack to the 1994 film “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” then play Track 8, “A Fine Romance,” in which the singer laments being in a relationship with a partner who does not reciprocate in the physical affection department. It’s a snappy little song with clever lyrics that are made even more interesting by the way they are delivered, by the one-and-only Lena Horne. She’s completely in command, and the orchestra sounds fantastic. It’s one of hundreds of songs this wonderful singer recorded over many decades.
Lena Horne had a long career in Hollywood movies, on the Broadway stage, on television, as a performer in nightclubs, and as a recording artist. She was not the first black actress to appear on the big screen, but she was the first to be given the Hollywood glamour treatment. She was definitely a groundbreaker. Sadly, racism touched just about every aspect of her life and work.
Lena Horne was born in Brooklyn to a large, privileged family that was presided over by her maternal grandmother. But when Lena was very young her mother, an aspiring singer and actress, took her away to travel with her as she sought work as a performer. Her mother often left young Lena to live for weeks or months at a time with various friends and relatives. It must have been difficult for such a young girl.
When she was still in her teens Horne got a job performing in the chorus at the Cotton Club, up in Harlem. All the performers were black, and all the patrons were white. The black performers had to come in the back door, and if black relatives of the performers came to see the show they had to sit at a “family table,” which was of course in the back next to the kitchen.
From there Horne went on tour with a traveling orchestra and eventually went out to L.A. and performed at the Café Trocadero. Soon after, with the help of Walter White of the NAACP, she signed a contract at MGM to appear in movies. This was a big deal back then, because it was the Golden Age of Hollywood and the major studios were at the peak of their creative output. White wanted to use Horne to help improve the image of black people in movies, promising that she would never have to play a maid. But to Horne’s disappointment she was not destined to be a big star with leading roles. She appeared in about a dozen films for MGM, mostly in the 1940s. She could be given one song to perform that had nothing to do with the plot. This made it possible for her appearance in a movie to be edited out when it was shown in the racist South.
Eventually Horne stopped making movies and instead developed her nightclub act. She got really good, too, performing in some of the best rooms, including the Sands in Las Vegas and the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. She recorded live albums at these venues that were commercially successful. She also recorded dozens of studio albums, and while those were not always commercially successful, they were almost always artistically successful. She had learned to put emotion into her songs. It’s just a hunch on my part, but I’m thinking that in the recording studio many years after she left Hollywood and she was singing “A Fine Romance,” she was not lamenting a lover but rather her experience at MGM. She was hoping for fireworks but instead got bottle rockets.
In the 1960s Horne got involved in the civil rights movement. The new president, John F. Kennedy, was dragging his feet on helping Americans who were black, and leaders from the NAACP and other groups began holding the administration’s feet to the fire. They demanded a sit-down, and Horne participated in a meeting in New York City with black activists and Attorney General Bobby Kennedy. She also traveled to Jackson, Mississippi, where she met Medgar Evers and participated in a rally organized by the civil rights leader. On this trip she also met with a group of black children who were learning how to defend themselves against beatings by racist cops, and she sang at a church concert. Less than a week later Horne was waiting in the ABC studios, about to go on the “Today” show with Hugh Downs, when she learned, just moments before airtime, that Evers had been murdered. It was difficult for her to keep her composure.
Horne also took part in the March on Washington in 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his memorable speech. Horne did not give a speech herself, but she did go to the microphone to shout the word “Freedom!” so that marchers knew that she was there.
Also during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, Horne appeared on various television shows, including “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “The Judy Garland Show,” “The Muppet Show” and “Sesame Street.” She returned to the big screen in 1978, in “The Wiz,” playing Glinda. And she continued to record many albums.
I learned all this reading “Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne,” an all-encompassing, 500-page biography by the author and journalist James Gavin, who has written many highly regarded books, including one on Chet Baker and another on the history of New York’s cabaret scene. I happen to be personally acquainted with the author. We’ve stayed at the same house at Fire Island. His knowledge about 20th Century popular American music is unrivaled by anyone I’ve ever met. He’s the kind of person who has never walked or driven past a record store without going inside. His music collection is legendary. For me it was great fun to read about Lena Horne in a book written by someone I know! He patiently and graciously answered many questions I had.
For me, some of the highlights of the book included the author’s description of what the Cotton Club was like. He also describes aspects of the studio system that existed in Hollywood back in that era, and he includes in-depth details such as what type of makeup was used on Horne’s complexion for filming. He leaves nothing out. The book includes a number of really nice photographs of Lena Horne taken throughout her life. In most of the pictures, at least to my eye, she looks like she is having a good time, especially when she is with her daughter, Gail.
The author also includes a discography and a filmography at the back. I found myself flipping back and forth quite a bit. Several times I found myself looking up scenes from some of the movies in which Horne appeared on YouTube. And more than once I ordered some of her albums from Amazon. When playing one of these CDs, a Collectibles version of “At the Waldorf Astoria” and “At the Sands,” which were recorded in front of her live audience (of mostly rich white people), I can literally hear the emotions described by the author in her voice. For anyone who is a fan of Lena Horne or who would simply like to learn more about this important American artist, I can’t recommend this book enough.
Here are some additional notes from this excellent biography:
In the early 1980s Horne did a one-women Broadway show, “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music,” which was a big hit. As the author explains, this was her version of her story, told the way she wanted to tell it, which was not 100 percent accurate in all aspects. But the audiences loved it, and Horne took the show on tour and also filmed it for TV. It turned into a “victory lap” of sorts, allowing her to put a nice exclamation mark on her long career as an entertainer. At the 1981 Tony Awards ceremony she received a special award for her show and then performed “Believe in Yourself,” her song from “The Wiz.” This is easy to find on YouTube. It’s a powerful performance that brings a tear to my eye no matter how many times I watch the clip.
Lena Horne took me away from the U.S. presidents for a while, but I sure am glad I took the time to read about her. What a remarkable life she had. Speaking of the presidents, she lived long enough to see Barack Obama elected!
Leonardo da Vinci was one of the greatest painters of all time. His “greatest hits” include the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper and Vitruvian Man, that instantly recognizable drawing of a naked man standing with outstretched arms inside a square inside a circle. But he was much more than just a painter. He pioneered the study of human anatomy. Throughout his life he dissected corpses and completed accurate, illustrative drawings. Leonardo was also an engineer who designed everything from large water projects to weapons. He studied mathematics and was able to depict numerical concepts in visual form. He invented and played various musical instruments. He also designed elaborate theatrical spectacles, which we can only imagine today based on existing written descriptions.
Leonardo was born in 1452 in the small town of Vinci, Italy, which was near Florence, which was a center of the arts at the time. He was born out of wedlock. His father was a notary, which was an important profession at the time. Being born to parents who were not married was not a source of public shame then, but because Leonardo was of illegitimate birth he was not able to follow in his father’s career path. But this might have been more a blessing than a curse for a gifted youngster who exhibited much talent as an artist. As a teen-ager Leonardo went to Florence and became an apprentice in the studio of Verrocchio, who was an established artist. At the time, art was more of a team effort, where paintings were commissioned and painted by an artist assisted by numerous apprentices. Eventually Leonardo was able to branch out on his own and received support from various patrons, including the wealthy Medici family, and the politically powerful Francesco Sforza and Cesare Borgia. In addition to Florence, Leonardo also lived and worked in Milan, Venice and Rome. He spent the final part of his life in France, where he was part of the court of King Francis I, who put him up in a nice house. Leonardo died in 1519, and one account says that he was being cradled in the king’s arms as he passed away, although that story might be more legend than fact.
Leonardo’s most defining characteristic, which he had throughout his life, was intense curiosity about the world and everything in it. Throughout his life he kept notebooks, pages and pages of notebooks, in which he documented what he learned, sketched out his drawings and even wrote down shopping and to-do lists.
This is all according to “Leonardo Da Vinci,” the 500-page illustrated biography by Walter Isaacson that was published in 2017. This was a pleasure to read. This is the third biography I have read by Isaacson, who is a historian and former editor of Time magazine. I previously read his excellent books on Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein. He also wrote biographies of Steve Jobs and Henry Kissinger that I have not read.
Here are a few more notes about Leonardo:
As I mentioned, this was a fascinating book to read. But it is also a wonderful book to simply hold and look at. For anyone interested in getting a copy I would recommend purchasing the hardcover, which includes beautifully reproduced color images of his paintings and major drawings. Sometimes I spent just as much time looking at the various paintings and drawings as reading about them.
Clint Hill was a Secret Service agent assigned to protect Jacqueline Kennedy. He’s the one who jumped on the back of the car in Dallas. He’s done a number of television interviews over the years, and he also wrote a few books about his experiences, including “Mrs. Kennedy and Me,” about the four years he spent with the first lady and her family.
Through Mr. Hill, we learn a bit more about Mrs. Kennedy and her day-to-day life both in and out of the public eye. He narrates about life in the White House, various private family retreats to Florida and Massachusetts, as well as high-profile trips overseas. Many of the stories in this book are fun to read about. The chapters about the assassination come at the very end, and some of the details, which are also documented elsewhere, are quite grim. (Hill also wrote “Five Days in November,” which is an hour-by-hour account of the trip to Texas that ended in tragedy for Mrs. Kennedy and the whole country, which is another worthwhile read, in my opinion.)
Two of the more peculiar incidents described in the book both involve Aristotle Onassis, the wealthy and famous Greek who would one day become Jackie’s second husband. Jackie made two solo trips to Greece during JFK’s presidency. According to the book, Hill was summoned to the Oval Office before the first trip and told by the President himself that whatever happens, to keep Jackie away from Onassis. But on her second trip Jackie stayed with Onassis on his yacht, this time with the full blessing of JFK. Hill says he was puzzled but that he never felt it his place to ask for explanation.
Here are a few more notes about Jackie Kennedy:
Also during JFK’s presidency, Jackie helped arrange a visit of the Mona Lisa to the United States. I’ll have more to say about that most famous of all paintings in some upcoming, non-presidential book reports.
Top Photo: Mrs. Kennedy in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House. (Robert Knudsenderivative, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
John F. Kennedy, also known as JFK, also known as Jack Kennedy, was our nation’s 35th president. Among his most lasting achievements were the founding of the Peace Corps and his fostering of the space program. He also prevented nuclear annihilation. He was a war hero. He was young and energetic and had movie-star good looks. His wife, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, also known as Jackie, and later Jackie O, was enormously popular in her own right. Kennedy was the immediate successor to Dwight D. Eisenhower. He was a Democrat. He defeated then Vice President Richard M. Nixon in the presidential election of 1960. Three years later, in an event that shocked the world, Kennedy was shot to death in front of thousands of people in Dallas. His assassination took place on this day (Nov. 22) in 1963. Upon JFK’s death, Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson was sworn in as President.
Today’s book report is about “An Unfinished Life — John. F. Kennedy: 1917-1963,” by Robert Dallek. This biography, at 718 pages of text, focuses mostly on the Kennedy presidency. There is almost nothing in the book about the assassination itself, although there is plenty of information about the many issues Kennedy was wrestling with in the weeks and months leading up to his trip to Texas. The author speculates about what kind of president JFK might have become had he won re-election to a second term.
As president, Kennedy faced a number of domestic and international challenges, including the economy, civil rights, dealing with the Russians in post World War II Europe, and the immense challenges that the existence of nuclear weapons posed to our country and to the world at large. It was the height of the Cold War, and Kennedy clashed with Nikita Kruschev, the leader of the USSR.
Both his biggest failure and his greatest success while in office involved Cuba. Shortly after Kennedy took office, he authorized a covert operation intended to remove Fidel Castro from power. The plan, which had been formulated during Eisenhower’s presidency, was to use CIA operatives and anti-Castro Cuban exiles to invade the island, where they would presumably be greeted as liberators (sound familiar?), thus causing Castro to be toppled from power. Of course this did not go as planned. What became known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion turned into a massive disaster, ultimately strengthening Castro’s hand. Kennedy could have escalated matters by ordering a full-scale military assault, as many of his military advisors had presumed would happen, but to his credit Kennedy accepted the loss and took responsibility for it.
The following year, in October 1962, the Soviet Union began installing missiles in Cuba that they could have used to strike the United States with nuclear weapons. Some of Kennedy’s military advisors wanted us to bomb Cuba and ask questions later, or to launch a ground invasion. Anyone who has seen the 1964 Stanley Kubrick film “Dr. Strangelove” might remember how crazy for war some of the military chiefs were. According to Dallek, at least one of them was drawn from real life. Instead of a belligerent military response, which in all likelihood would have sparked all-out nuclear war, Kennedy decided to use a naval blockade, which he called a “quarantine,” along with diplomacy, which turned into quite forceful diplomacy involving the United Nations, to get the missiles out of Cuba. It worked. In my view, it was Kennedy’s astute, intelligent and well-reasoned leadership during the Cuban Missile Crisis that prevented unspeakable death and destruction.
The book starts at the beginning of the 35th president’s life. As we learn, John F. Kennedy was born 1917 to a famous and wealthy family. Both of JFK’s grandfathers had been prominent in local and state politics. JFK was the second oldest of nine children of Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. Joe Sr. was a successful businessman who became immensely wealthy through many ventures as well as by investing in the stock market. He was also a prominent Democrat. President Franklin D. Roosevelt named him the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and later appointed him ambassador to Great Britain. In 1938, as Britain was appeasing Hitler, all 11 Kennedys went to London, and they were there when Nazi Germany invaded Poland and World War II broke out. But Joe Sr. was an isolationist, and when he said some things in the press that were not in keeping with U.S. policy at the time, FDR recalled him.
Back home, after Kennedy graduated from Harvard in 1940, he attempted to join the U.S. Army as an officer, but he was disqualified due to health reasons. The following year, he tried again, this time with the Navy. His father pulled some strings to get him in despite a bad back, and JFK eventually assumed command of various PT Boats. In 1943 he was commanding the PT-109 in the Solomon Islands in the Pacific theater when it was struck and destroyed by a Japanese ship. He led himself and the 10 surviving crew members to safety, but it took many days for them to be rescued. At one point Kennedy swam 2 miles through the open ocean to seek help for his men, despite what must have been excruciating physical pain, not to mention extreme hunger and thirst. He was later honored with various medals, including a Purple Heart, for his service.
After the war Kennedy briefly became a newspaper correspondent before entering into politics. He first ran for Congress from Massachusetts in 1946, with the backing of his father, who poured massive amounts of cash into this and subsequent campaigns. Kennedy served three terms in the House. Then, in 1952 he was elected to the United States Senate, defeating Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. He was re-elected to the Senate in 1958 before running for President in 1960.
Here are some additional revelations from this book. Before and during his presidency, Kennedy experienced many health problems that were not disclosed to the American people. When he was still in college he was frequently hospitalized. Today many of his health problems have been attributed to Addison’s disease, which is a disorer of the adrenal glands, however JFK’s health issues were much more complicated than that. According to the book, he experienced lifelong gastrointestinal problems and chronic back pain. He was frequently medicated with steroids and other drugs. Other revelations in the book involve Kennedy’s sex life. Before and during his marriage to Jackie, JFK was a womanizer. He had many conquests. One of his many affairs might have been with Marilyn Monroe. The also author says that the infamous White House taping system, which would later result in Nixon’s downfall, was installed by Kennedy! There were even missing tapes, he says, speculating that they might have been destroyed to cover up dalliances with Marilyn, or perhaps a secret plot against Castro, or perhaps details of JFK’s health problems.
More notes about JFK, his family and his presidency:
As I mentioned the Dallek book does not delve into the assassination itself, but each year around this time a number of TV specials about that day in Dallas are shown on the Smithsonian Channel, the History Channel and other channels. I’ve learned a great deal from many of these documentaries, and they stand in stark contrast to the 1991 Oliver Stone movie “JFK,” which in my opinion is total rubbish.
One much more worthwhile film about Kennedy is “Thirteen Days,” from 2000, with Kevin Costner. Although the movie is a bit off in some of the details and personnel involved, in my opinion it does a good job of portraying the skill and thoughtfulness that JFK used to avert nuclear war. It was, in my opinion, Kennedy’s finest hour.
Coney Island is a neighborhood at the far southern tip of Brooklyn featuring an amusement park, a boardwalk and a beach. It’s where a famous Mermaid Parade takes place every June, where Nathan’s holds a hot dog eating contest each year on the Fourth of July, and where the Polar Bear Club invites civilians to jump in the ocean on New Year’s Day, no matter how cold the weather. During the summer months, there are lifeguards here, and bodybuilders take turns showing off at a pull-up bar on the sand. There are tattoo parlors and stands offering frozen alcoholic beverages, and more than a few unsavory characters. The New York Aquarium is also located here. From Manhattan, it takes an hour and fifteen minutes to get here on the Subway. From where I live now in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood, it is six subway stops away or a 45-minute walk. Since I moved here, all the rides, events and attractions have been closed or canceled because of the pandemic, but it is still an interesting place to walk around.
This fabulous book of historical photographs, a gift from my dear friend Garrett Glaser, is filled with all sorts of fascinating information about the rich and colorful history of this unique spot. There have been a number of different amusement parks located here, including Astroland, Feltmans, Luna Park and Steeplechase Park, sometimes operating adjacent to one another in a spirit of friendly competition. Attractions over the years have included hotels, resorts, water rides, a parachute jump, a Ferris wheel, and even a hotel shaped like a giant elephant! Many of these novelties no longer exist, but the Cyclone, pictured on the book’s cover, is still there. I have ridden the Cyclone a number of times over the years, and in my opinion it is one of our country’s best roller coasters. It’s a wooden ride, very fast and steep, similar to the Blue Streak at Cedar Point, but more compact. Also pictured on the cover is the “Astroland Moon Rocket,” which people could climb around inside, and a “Skyride,” in which passengers floated overhead in spherical capsules.
Here are a few more notes about Coney Island:
Coney Island has evolved considerably over the past 150-plus years, and this book does a nice job of documenting much of this history. One thing that strikes me is seeing the very large crowds in many of the historical pictures. Thanks for this wonderful book, Garrett!
After Eisenhower led the Allies to victory over Hitler in World War II, he went on to become our nation’s 34th President. Elected in 1952 and re-elected in 1956, he served two full terms. His predecessor was Truman, and his successor was JFK. Richard Nixon was his vice president. Ike, a moderate Republican, was immensely popular. He was a fiscal conservative but not an ideologue. Unlike many in his party who wanted to dismantle the New Deal, Ike oversaw the expansion of Social Security and increased its benefits. He implemented an increase in the federal minimum wage. He supported more access to health care, and he established the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. He funded the development of the polio vaccine.
On making our country a bit less racist, Eisenhower made some progress. Ike’s five appointments to the Supreme Court included both conservatives and liberals, most notably Chief Justice Earl Warren, who wrote the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka decision that desegregated the nation’s schools. Ike signed civil rights legislation in 1957 and 1960, but these bills were largely toothless. In the American armed services, meanwhile, Truman had already ordered desegregation but the military leaders had dragged their feet. Ike got better results.
Ike was responsible for two of our nation’s most important infrastructure projects, the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Interstate Highway System. I’ll say more about the highways in a moment.
Dwight D. Eisenhower was born in a small town in Texas and grew up in Abilene, Kansas. He had many siblings, mostly brothers. The family was not wealthy. Ike married Mamie Doud, and their marriage featured many ups and downs over the years. They had two sons, the first of whom died in early childhood. The son who survived, John Eisenhower, had a military career like his father. John Eisenhower had four children, the eldest of whom, David Eisenhower, would eventually marry Richard Nixon’s daughter Julie.
Like many generals before and since, Ike attended West Point. He was an average student there. He passed a merit exam to get in. Attending West Point allowed Ike to embark upon a successful military career. When World War I broke out Ike wanted to be sent to Europe, but instead he was assigned to a number of posts stateside. He became an expert on tanks.
By the time World War II broke out Ike had advanced in rank. Leap-frogging over many other generals who had more seniority and battlefield experience, he was chosen to lead the Allied invasion of northern Africa. Later, even more importantly, Ike led the allied invasion of France as Supreme Allied Commander. D-Day, as it became known, was the largest military engagement the world has seen before or since. It involved incomprehensible planning and organizational detail. Under Ike’s leadership, the invasion was a success and turned the tide of war against the Nazis once and for all. All during the war, to his credit, Ike dealt skillfully with three of the world’s most daunting and colossal egos: the American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and French resistance leader Charles de Gaulle. After WWII ended, Ike served as Army Chief of Staff and Supreme Commander of NATO, and he also served as President of Columbia University.
Although Ike had never disclosed a party affiliation — or if he even had one — both the Democrats and the Republicans wanted him to run for president. When he ran on the GOP ticket in 1952 he did so in opposition to the isolationist wing of his party that was headed by Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, who was President William Howard Taft’s son. That November Ike defeated the Democratic nominee, Illinois Governor Adlai Stephenson, in a landslide, and he did so again in a rematch in 1956. His campaign slogan was “I like Ike.”
Here are some additional notes about Ike:
This is all according to “Eisenhower in War and Peace,” the 766-page biography by historian Jean Edward Smith. Published in 2012 and filled with lots of photographs and references to original source material, this biography offers so much information that my book report today can only scratch the surface. In his footnotes, Mr. Smith dispels some misconceptions about Eisenhower perpetrated by others over the years, especially by author Stephen E. Ambrose, who is considered by many (wrongly, in my view) to be the top historian on Eisenhower. This is another long book that seemed short. It was a pleasure to read. Approximately a third of the book is devoted to Eisenhower’s upbringing and early life, and then it’s about equal parts World War II and the presidency. For me, the emotional high point of the book came in the aftermath of Brown vs. Board of Education, when Ike sent in federal troops to Little Rock, Ark., to protect the right of nine black students to attend public school.
In my view Eisenhower was, all in all, a good president. Sometimes he is referred to as a “caretaker president,” but that might not be a bad thing. As Mr. Smith points out in this book, Ike kept the economy on an even keel and balanced the federal budget. He worked well with Democrats in Congress, and he had a genuine respect for the U.S. Constitution. To his credit, Ike also ended the fighting in Korea and prevented the U.S. from going to war with the USSR and China. The way I see it, steering a middle course, especially in times of peace and economic growth, is usually the best. And the American people approved of Ike throughout his entire presidency by ranking him very high in public approval polls and in his two landslide victories, in ’52 and ’56.
But — on the other hand, not everything Eisenhower did was beneficial to all Americans and to the country as a whole. Perhaps intentionally or because he wasn’t paying enough attention, Ike allowed the CIA to undermine and ultimately topple the legitimately elected governments in Iran and Guatemala, setting off unfathomable negative consequences. It also became a pattern.
Also troubling, and not mentioned in the book, is that it was under the Eisenhower administration that an irrational, unfair policy of excluding gays and lesbians from the federal workforce was implemented as part of the Communist witch hunts of the McCarthy era. This anti-gay discrimination in the federal government — known today as the “lavender scare” — lasted for decades and did untold damage to countless lives.
Also not mentioned in the book and even more problematic, in my opinion, is that the country’s fancy new highways, combined with federal neglect of trains and public transportation, paved the way for white flight to the suburbs and the growth of the shopping mall — all of which fostered racial and economic disparity, the effects of which we are still dealing with today.
That famous photograph of Harry S. Truman holding up a newspaper with the erroneous headline “Dewey Defeats Truman” was taken in St. Louis the day after the 1948 presidential election. Truman became our nation’s 33rd President in April 1945, when FDR died in office at the end of World War II. In short order and on Truman’s watch, we defeated Nazi Germany and then Japan and brought our boys home. But Truman had not been very popular during his first four years in office. Public opinion polls, the press and his fellow politicians all projected that he was going to lose. When the early returns on election night indicated as much, the editors of the Chicago Daily Tribune (now the Chicago Tribune) printed their headline, which turned out to be wrong, giving Truman something to laugh about.
That fall, the man from Independence, Missouri, ever confident, had campaigned energetically across large swaths of the country, largely from the back of a train, and wherever he went he drew impressive crowds. Even when his train made whistle-stop stops in small towns in the wee hours, large masses turned out to hear this down-to-earth, man-on-the street kind of man. In many ways he was a man of the people. He knew what it was like to put in a hard day’s work. He had been a farmer, and a small business owner. He was a war veteran too. He was not a great orator, but he always spoke honestly and directly, without equivocation or trying to play both sides of the coin. Famously, he never blamed others.
Before he became Vice President and then President, Truman served in the United States Senate, where he developed a reputation as a “New Deal Democrat.” As President, he was even more progressive in many respects than FDR had been. He called for a higher minimum wage, and proposed increased federal spending for education, housing and public works projects. He also called for universal health care for all Americans. He called these proposals the “Fair Deal.” Truman was also better than FDR had been on civil rights. He laid the groundwork for the desegregation of the U.S. military, and he prohibited discrimination based on race for those applying for civil service jobs.
On the world stage, Truman supported the formation of the United Nations and NATO, and he pledged support to countries electing their own leaders in free elections. This policy, known as the Truman Doctrine, was intended as a check on the growing influence of the Soviet Union. Truman was also responsible for the Marshall Plan, which provided postwar economic aid to Western Europe, and the Berlin Airlift, which delivered food and other supplies to the Western part of Berlin that was surrounded by the Soviets. He recognized the state of Israel upon its founding in 1948.
It was also Truman who made the fateful decision to drop nuclear bombs on Japan. And he sent our troops to Korea, which would eventually cost countless thousands of American lives. What I did not realize before reading “Truman,” the masterful, thousand-page biography by David McCullough, is how much worse these things would have turned out to be, had it not been for the bespectacled man in the White House with a sign on his desk that said “The Buck Stops Here.” When Truman made a decision, it was only after careful deliberation about what he thought was best for the country. If that made him less popular, so be it.
It was toward the end of his time in office that Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur, thus plunging his already low public approval even lower. At the time this was shocking. But with the passage of time many, including me, believe that MacArthur was a dangerous demagogue who needed to be fired. It took a man like Truman to have the guts to dismiss him. The general had threatened to use nuclear weapons against China. And he interfered with Truman’s diplomatic efforts to bring the fighting in Korea to an end. By relieving MacArthur, Truman solidified one of the most important principles of our Constitution, which is civilian control of the military.
Another of Truman’s achievements was the formation of the Atomic Energy Commission, which is now the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which put control of atomic weapons and energy in elected civilian hands, rather than the military.
When he left office Truman was unpopular, but over time his standing in the eyes of the public began to improve, to the point at which, today, when surveys are conducted, he usually ranks in the upper tier.
Truman was born in 1884 and hailed from Independence, Missouri. Today that’s part of the Kansas City metropolitan area, but in Truman’s day it was a completely different city. After graduating from high school he attended a business college but did not graduate. Instead he took a number of jobs, including railroad timekeeper and bank clerk. He also worked for his father on a farm in Grandview, Missouri.
When the United States entered World War I in 1917 Truman was old enough that he could have stayed home, but instead he enlisted and went to France as an officer, where his talents as a leader emerged. Truman served in the war with bravery and initiative. He fought in three battles and later received medals.
Upon returning from the war, he opened a men’s clothing store in Kansas City with a business partner, which was successful until an economic downturn forced it out of business. But Truman paid off his store’s debts over the course of many years.
After the store went out of business Truman entered politics, as an elected county judge, with the help of the Pendergrasts, who were a well-connected political family. Truman himself was not corrupt, but the Pendergrasts were involved in all manner of shady dealings and Truman’s association with them caused grief for him for decades to come. Being county judge was an administrative job, not the kind of judge who presides over trials. Truman was responsible for building roads. And rather than awarding the contracts to friends of the Pendergrasts, he hired construction crews who could actually do the work and do it well and under budget. The roads in that part of the state had never been better.
In 1934 Truman was elected to the United States Senate, and he was re-elected in 1940. His crowning achievement as a Senator was his work as chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs, which became known as the Truman Committee. The goal was to root out waste, fraud and abuse in the military. Truman and his fellow committee members held hearings and made visits to military bases. But there was no grandstanding the way many other Senate committees conducted themselves. The Truman Committee took its business seriously, ultimately saving our nation untold billions of dollars. In my view, the work of Truman and his committee proved to be absolutely vital to our country’s ability to achieve victory in World War II.
In 1944, when FDR ran for his unprecedented fourth term, he was in failing health and party insiders decided to dump Vice President Henry Wallace from the ticket because he was considered too far left, and replace him with Truman. According to the book, Truman did not want to do this but was strong-armed by FDR into going along with the plan. As fate would have it, Truman was Vice President for just 82 days before FDR died and he was summoned to the White House to take the oath of office.
Here are some additional notes about our nation’s 33rd President:
As I mentioned, I learned so much about Truman by reading the biography by McCullough. It was a pleasure to read this book, which is a comprehensive, cradle-to-grave narrative complete with helpful photographs, notes, index and bibliography. This was a long book that seemed short, and there is much, much more in it than mentioned above. There are some laugh-out-loud anecdotes, including one about a White House staff member fixing drinks for the first family and another in which Truman, while out on a walk, tells a tree that it’s doing a good job.
I followed up McCullough with a second book, “Harry S. Truman” by Margaret Truman, at 581 pages. I remember my father having a copy of this book in paperback. I found a used copy at the Strand Bookstore before the pandemic. I was slightly disappointed in Margaret Truman’s book. I thought she would write more about the family life. Instead she focused on policy, but the descriptions of meetings were so detailed that I suspected that Truman himself wrote the book, or large portions of it, to help settle scores. Just a hunch.
Anyway, if you’re interested in reading just one book about Truman and it’s between these two, I would recommend McCullough’s. As for me, someday I definitely want to read more about Truman. In my view, he was one of our nation’s very best presidents.
I attended the opening of NASDAQ today, at the TV studio in Times Square. The president of the American Dental Association and principals of Henry Schein Inc. rang the opening buzzer, to commemorate the 18th annual Give Kids A Smile effort to treat and educate underserved children.
Article on the Dental Tribune website here.