On Harry Truman and the next election

 Harry Truman, the President made famous by the sign on his desk…



Election Day is a week away.  It’s coming next Tuesday, November 4, and that leads us to the prayer found on page 822 of the Book of Common Prayer, For an Election:

Almighty God, to whom we must account for all our powers and privileges:  Guide the people of the United States … in the election of officials and representatives; that, by faithful administration and wise laws, the rights of all may be protected and our nation be enabled to fulfill your purposes; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

(Hey, it could happen…)  And speaking of money, power and politics, this post is on the wit and wisdom – quite often Biblical – of the late President Harry Truman:

Harry S. Truman [1884-1972] was the 33rd President of the United States (1945–1953).  The final running mate of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944, Truman succeeded to the presidency on April 12, 1945, when Roosevelt died after months of declining health.  Under Truman, the U.S. successfully concluded World War II; in the aftermath of the conflict, tensions with the Soviet Union increased, marking the start of the Cold War.

Simply put, Harry was an uncomplicated shoot from the lip kind of politician with an equally uncomplicated sense of right and wrong.  And so – looking at today’s politicians and to borrow a phrase from 1860 (as the county dissolved into Civil War) – “Oh, for an hour of Truman.”

That is, in view of next week’s election it makes sense to review some of Harry’s thoughts on subjects including but not limited to politics and the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (below).  Unless otherwise noted the Truman quotes that follow are from Plain Speaking[:]  An oral biography of Harry S. Truman, Merle Miller, Berkley Publishing NY (1973).

Aside from being known for his “refreshing candor,” Truman was also noted for being open-minded.   He was always willing to listen to “what the other fella has to say.”  (BTW: a trait this blog promotes.)  And he was known for his avid reading, much of it history:

There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know…   [G]o back to old Hammurabi, the Babyonian emperor.   Why, he had laws that covered everything, adultery and murder and divorce, everything…  Those people had the same problems as we have now. Men don’t change.

(Miller, 26)   As updated from 1973, the politically-correct version would read, “People don’t change,” but you get the idea.  See also Code of Hammurabi – Wikipedia.

Another thing that hasn’t changed – either since the time of Hammurabi or when Truman was president – is the number of “religious phonies” around.  (The Scribe googled that term and got 2,720,000 results.)   Truman had something to say about them too:

About this counterfeit business.  My Grandfather [Solomon*] Young felt the same way.  We had a church in the front yard…  And the Baptists and the Methodists and all of them used it.  And Grandfather Young when I was six years old … he told me that whenever the customers in any of those denominations prayed too loud in the Amen corner, you’d better go home and lock your smokehouse…   And I found that to be true.  I’ve never cared much for the loud pray-ers [sic] or for people who do that much going on about religion.

(Miller, 56)  This would seem especially true of politicians today who either “wear their religion on their sleeve,” or attack their opponents’ religion, or claim they’re “better Christians,” or otherwise use religion for their own benefit.  And incidentally, Jesus felt the same way about people who “pray too loud.”  See Matthew 6:5-6, and On praying in public.

I covered Truman’s views on reporters in the movie review, On “Gone Girl” and Lazy Cusses – Part I, and On “Gone Girl” and Lazy Cusses – Part II.   On the other hand, Truman agreed with Thomas Jefferson’s statement, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” See Jefferson on Politics & Government: Freedom of the Press.

As to one of Truman’s best-known statements, on the buck stops here, from passing the buck:

The expression [came] from poker, in which a marker or counter … was used to indicate the person whose turn it was to deal.  If the player did not wish to deal he could pass [the “buck“] to the next player.   Another [possible source] is to the French expression “bouc émissaire” meaning scapegoat, whereby passing the “bouc” is equivalent to passing the blame or onus.  The terms “bouc émissaire” and scapegoat both originate from an Old Testament reference (Lev. 16:6-10) to an animal that was ritually made to carry the burden of sins, after which the “buck” was sent or “passed” into the wilderness to expiate them.

See Buck passing – Wikipedia.  (For more on the phrase see the notes below.  See also On scapegoating, which noted:  “A whipping boy, ‘fall guy’ or ‘patsy’ is a form of scapegoat…“)

On that note, and since this blog is on the Bible, we end with Truman’s quote on the Gospels:

I’ve always done considerable reading of the Bible…  I liked the New Testament stories best, especially the Gospels.  And when I was older, I was very much interested in the way those fellas saw the same things in a different manner.  A very different manner, and they were all telling the truth.  I think that’s the first time I realized that no two people ever see the same thing in quite the same way, and when they tell it the way they saw it, they aren’t necessarily lying if it’s different…   And that is one of the reasons that when I got into a position of power I always tried to keep in mind that just because I saw something in a certain way didn’t mean that others didn’t see it in a different manner.  That’s why I always hesitated to call a man a liar unless I had the absolute goods on him.

(Miller, 214)  Now that’s the kind of “delightfully retro” we could use today…



The upper image is courtesy of Everyone Is Butchering ‘the Buck Stops Here, which said the phrase did not mean a president can be blamed for everything bad that happens on his watch, as used today.  Instead it was aimed at “Monday morning quarterbacking” (also known as “whining“): 

“You know, it’s easy for the Monday morning quarterback to say what the coach should have done, after the game is over.  But when the decision is up before you – and on my desk I have a motto which says The Buck Stops Here’ – the decision has to be made.”

See also Harry S. Truman – Wikipedia, source of the brief biography above.

The lower image is courtesy of Peter Paul Rubens: The Four Evangelists, which noted:  “Rubens portrayed the four evangelists while working together on their texts.  An angel helps them…   Each gospel author can be identified by an attribute.  The attributes were derived from the opening verses of the gospels.  From left to right: Luke (bull), Matthew (man [angel]), Mark (lion), and John (eagle).” See also, Four Evangelists – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Re: “shooting from the lip.”  See AU theatre presents “Give ’em Hell, Harry”, noting Truman as a man who “wasn’t afraid to ‘shoot from the lip’ and put himself on the line for what he believed in, not for what was necessary to win an election.”  For other views Google “shoot from the lip.” 

Note too that “shooting from the lip” is an ironic twist on the phrase, “shooting from the hip.”  See What Does “Shoot from the Hip” Mean? – wiseGEEK, re:  an American expression referring “to a decision that is reached and implemented without stopping to consider the possible outcomes of the decision.”  The site noted two schools of thought: one that the practice is rash and likely to produce worse consequences.  The second school relies on an individual using instincts drawn on his or her collective experience; “Proponents of this approach note that many opportunities are lost because time is wasted going over the minutiae of how to respond.”

See also the King James Version of Psalm 22:7-8:   “All they that see me laugh me to scorn:  they shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying, He trusted on the LORD that he would deliver him:  let him deliver him, seeing he delighted in him.” (Emphasis added.)


Re:  “Oh, for an hour of Truman.”  See History for Kossacks: Election of 1860 – Daily Kos, which – in speaking of the interlude between Abraham Lincoln’s election and his actually taking office – noted:

Lincoln found himself armed with nothing but words to stop the South from seceding before he could even take office…   President James Buchanan, nearing 70 … looked at the Constitution and saw his hands being tied by a lack of specific instruction.  The cry went up from frustrated members of his own party: “Oh, but for an hour of Jackson!,” but “Old Buck” almost went out of his way to prove he was no “Old Hickory.”

See also AP US History Chapters 17-19 flashcards | Quizlet.

*   According to some sources, “Grandfather Young” provided Truman’s middle name, “Harry Solomon Truman.”  But the consensus is that Mr. and Mrs. Truman couldn’t decide to honor Mr. Young, the maternal grandfather, or the paternal grandfather, Andrew Shippe Truman, and so the parents decided to go with “the letter ‘S’ by itself.”  See snopes.com: Harry Truman’s Middle Name.

The end-quote, on the differences in the Gospels, included this, “edited for content:”

I think I told you, in school we usually only had one man’s point of view of the history of something, and I’d go to the library and read three or four, sometimes as many as half a dozen, versions of the same thing, the same incident, and it was always the differences that interested me.   And you had to keep in mind that they were all telling what for them was the truth. (Emphasis in original.)

In another story Truman talked about a reporter who asked Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, “What’s the secret of your success?”  Holmes answered, “Young man, the secret of my success is that at a very early age I discovered that I’m not God.”  (Miller, 297, during an interview in which Truman discussed his firing General Douglas McArthur.)

Another quote came from Dean Acheson, Truman’s Secretary of State, as to “why the press did such an abysmally poor job” (emphasis in original) in writing and reporting on Truman as president:

It’s as if the correspondents had made up their minds when Mr. Truman became President that he was a country bumpkin, and I am afraid a great many of them never changed their minds.

(Miller, 376, referring to a problem that seems to plague some reporters “even to this day.”)  See also Dean Acheson – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.



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