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Historians and the Truman myth

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Michael Hiltzik has a nice piece in the Los Angeles Times commenting on my Truman money scandal research:

Truman let it be known that he had entered presidential retirement in 1953 on the verge of destitution. His pitch resulted in the enactment of the Former Presidents Act in 1958, which endows this elite cadre with lifetime benefits.

The truth about Truman, however, is somewhat different. Completely different.

“The fact of the matter is that when he left the White House, Truman was loaded,” says Paul Campos, a law professor at the University of Colorado Boulder who has done what no Truman historians seem to have bothered to do — examine the financial records in the Truman archives in Independence, Mo. “He wasn’t just comfortably well off. He was Rich with a capital ‘R,’ and way into the 1%.”

It gets worse, as Campos has related at Lawyers, Guns & Money, an indispensable group blog where he’s a contributor, and in a July 24 piece in New York Magazine.

The worse part is that Truman basically stole the entire White House expense account, which was legally limited to being used to defray expenses incurred in the performance of official presidential duties. Truman converted the money — equivalent to millions in 2021 terms — into literal cash, which he stored in safe deposit boxes, first in the White House, and then in Kansas City.

The logistics of this are intriguing. How exactly do you go about getting fat stacks of cash out of a government expense account when you’re president of the United States anyway?. There’s a story in one of Truman’s biographies — McCullough I think — about Truman, shortly after becoming president, choosing to just stroll down Pennsylvania Avenue without telling the Secret Service where he was going, in order to visit his local bank branch to transact a little business. This caused a traffic jam from gawkers and threw his security detail into a panic when they found out what was happening. Henceforth, the biographer relates, the bank came to Truman rather than vice versa. Hmmm.

Another thing that intrigues me is why for more than 60 years now no historian has bothered to check out whether Truman’s facially absurd stories about his post-presidential financial struggles were true, which of course is why nobody found out about his sticky fingers in re the massive expense account. I’m struck by the fact that David McCullough was born in 1933, which means that when he wrote his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography in the early 1990s, he should have had a pretty vivid memory of what Truman’s presidential salary, memoir deal etc., meant in real dollar terms back in the 1950s. But instead he published a bunch of sentimental nonsense about how strapped poor Harry and Bess were post-presidency, which has been dutifully repeated by countless academics and journalists to this day.

Anyway, I look forward to the stories that will probably be published this fall about how Donald Trump is charging taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars per year or maybe month to “rent” “office space” inside Mar-a-Lago for his Office of the Former But Really Still the President. As Hiltzik concludes:

Even without the puncturing of the Truman myth, the time to revisit the Former Presidents Act is nigh. In today’s world, the pensions and subsidies warded former presidents are just gravy on their healthy personal fortunes. Giving more money to Donald Trump, considering his own wealth and his post-presidential behavior, would be a scandal. But the scandal existed long before he came on the scene.

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