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The Truman Show


Last summer I was trying to figure out exactly how much government money the soon to be former guy was going to manage to grift when he was no longer in office, so I dug into the history of the Former Presidents Act, the 1958 law that set up various pension benefits for ex-presidents. These now total an average of more than one million dollars per year for Bush, Clinton, and Obama, and half that for Carter (Carter extracts so much less money via the FPA because he rents far less grandiose office space than the former three ex-presidents). BTW those figures don’t include the cost of Secret Service protection, which is classified and provided under another statute.

Over and over again, I ran into historians and other academics claiming that the FPA was enacted because Harry Truman was practically broke when he left the White House — in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1992 biography, David McCullough even claimed that Truman had to take out a personal bank loan just to finance his first few months of civilian life back in Independence — and that his supposedly difficult financial circumstances led to the passage of the FPA five and half years later. (A common assertion in these narratives is that Herbert Hoover — the only other living ex-president at the time, and a very wealthy man — accepted the FPA’s benefits so as not to embarrass Truman).

Many years of studying the finances of higher ed in general and law schools in particular have left me with a fully operational bullshit detector, and this whole story caused it to go to 11 immediately. I knew presidents had a much larger salary in the mid-20th century than they do today. They are paid $400,000 per year these days, while the inflation-adjusted amount in 1950 was $1.1 million; in terms of relative income the gap is much larger than that. Plus I remembered vaguely that Truman had signed some huge contract for his memoirs immediately after leaving office.

So I ended up spending a year digging around in the Truman financial files, which apparently nobody had ever bothered to look at, to check up on whether Truman’s stories about how he would be on welfare if he hadn’t inherited the family farm were true (Truman told these stories to both the Congressional leadership during his five-year campaign to wheedle a pension out of Congress, and to the public as a whole, via Ed Murrow’s TV show See It Now, which dedicated an entire hour episode to the the ex-president in February of 1958. Truman used to occasion to complain about how Congress was happy to just let ex-presidents starve. A few months later Congress passed the FPA).

It turns out that Truman’s entire narrative was a tissue of fantastical lies of the most outrageous sort. Here are the facts:

(1) Truman, who entered the White House with a net worth of just a few thousand dollars, left it with assets that he estimated – far too conservatively it turns out — were worth about six and half million dollars in 2021 dollars, if we simply adjust for inflation. Adjusting for relative wealth, Truman’s net worth was roughly equivalent to $58 million in 2021 terms (Truman had more than five times the net worth of families at the 99th percentile of net worth at the time; the 99th percentile of net worth is currently more than eleven million dollars).

(2) By the time the FPA was passed these figures had grown to nearly ten million dollars and $74 million respectively.

(3) Truman claimed to have netted, in 2021 dollars, “just” $357,000 from his memoirs, after taxes and expenses; the actual figure was at least $2.9 million, and probably quite a bit more.

(4) Truman got paid an appearance fee equal to five times the annual income of the typical American family when he appeared on Murrow’s show, an occasion he used to complain about his financial circumstances in order to pressure Congress to start giving him a pension.

(5) Truman didn’t inherit the family farm: it was sold to him by three friends at friend prices, shortly after he became president. They themselves had bought it from the county government that had foreclosed on it years earlier. Truman then turned around and sold all the land a few years later at an enormous profit.

(6) A good portion of Truman’s post-presidential wealth was a product of the fact that Truman misappropriated pretty much the entire White House expense account during his elected term. This was the equivalent of $2.2 million, inflation-adjusted, and much more than that in terms of relative income. He filed fraudulent tax returns to cover up this misappropriation.

The whole story is here.

A couple of fascinating — to me anyway — side issues here are:

(1) Why did Truman, who lived in most ways quite modest life financially speaking after his presidency, lobby so furiously for pension benefits that he by no stretch of the imagination needed, given that he managed to use the presidency to become very rich? Note that to this day the only substantive explanation anybody has for why we even have the FPA is that Truman needed the money, because he was nearly broke when he left the White House, and was so scrupulous about not “leveraging,” as the b-school boys say, his fame.

(2) Why did a bunch of historians, most notably McCullough, but also distinguished academics like Robert Ferrell and Alonzo Hamby, unquestioningly accept Truman’s transparently ridiculous story about how he would have been on welfare if not for the inheritance of the old family place, and his equally ridiculous narrative about how he refused to employ his status as an ex-president to make any money in the years after he left the White House?

Another issue here is, exactly how much money is Trump going to squeeze out of the FPA? I fully anticipate that even now he is in the process of charging the government hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to “rent” “office space” inside Mar-a-Lago, for his Office of the Former President. I trust an enterprising journalist or three will keep an eye on this particular aspect of the non-stop many-faceted Donald Trump griftathon.

The FPA is a bad law that should be repealed. On a practical level, it has been a complete failure in regard to the reason that was given at the time for passing it, which was to ensure that presidents didn’t have to do things like write books, give lectures, and serve on corporate boards to support themselves in their post-presidential years. It would be an understatement to say that this incentive system has not worked as intended: every ex-president, from Truman on, has cashed in big time on his post-presidential celebrity. (Another side issue here that actually just occurred to me is whether it was even constitutional for Eisenhower to get the benefits of the FPA, which he did in fact receive. The Constitution bars any changes in presidential compensation during a president’s term in office: Why didn’t the FPA qualify as such?)

The fact that an all but open crook like Trump is now going to exploit the law in no doubt many sleazy ways, when combined with the revelation that the law only exists because Harry Truman stole a bunch of government money then lied to everybody for years about how he was on the edge of financial distress, provides an ideal occasion to get rid of it.

I mean if for some incomprehensible reason people are still concerned about the potential financial struggles of contemporary ex-presidents — you have to go all the way back to Grant to actually find a president who did struggle, and he only did so because he blew his wealth on financial speculation — go ahead and give them a half million dollar a year pension or whatever, but just reduce it on a dollar for dollar basis by any money they make.

Yeah it’s very little money in the grand scheme of things, but the symbolism is terrible. Ex-presidents aren’t royalty: they’re rich celebrities who are usually rich because they’re celebrities, and they’re celebrities because they were presidents of the United States. Giving them what are by ordinary citizen standards gargantuan pension benefits is just perverse, especially now that we’ve decided it’s a good idea to start electing career criminals like Trump to the office.

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