1. Good Harry, bad Harry. I recently watched the 1961 interviews David Susskind did with Harry Truman in 1961. You can see them on Amazon Prime streaming. I was very impressed; I could not remember any President in my lifetime who appeared so candid, open, and sincere about his principles, certainly none of our recent POTUSes. Truman is not one of favorite Presidents; I regard him as a mediocre man thrust into a job far above his abilities who managed to do better than anyone could have predicted. He rose to the occasion as best he could, and that is deserving of respect. The interviews elevated Harry in my estimation.
Then, yesterday, I read a scholarly paper by Prof. Paul Campos of the University of Colorado Law School that shattered my newly grown regard for Harry. The Former Presidents Act (FPA), a 1958 statute provides ex-Presidents with millions of dollars in future taxpayer-funded benefits. One of the motives behind the House’s “snap impeachment” of Donald Trump was to ensure that he not be a beneficiary of the Act. (They failed. As Nelson Muntz would say, “HAHA!”) Campos’s research shows that while the FPA has always been explained as a response to former President Truman’s financial struggles in part because he refused to exploit his status as a former President cash in (like some Presidents of recent vintage), this was not just a false narrative, but a spectacularly false narrative. Campos writes,
“Using recently released and until now unexamined archival evidence… in a complete contravention of the existing standard historical record, [it appears that] Harry Truman was, as a direct result of being president, a very wealthy man on the day he left the White House, with an estimated net worth, in relative economic terms, of approximately $58 million in 2021 dollars. …[T]his wealth was a result of both Truman’s enormous presidential salary — several times larger, in real terms, than the current salary for the office — and, more problematically, of the evident fact that Truman misappropriated essentially all of the multi-million dollar — in 2021 terms — presidential expense account that was set up for him by Congress at the beginning of his second term….[A]gain contrary to the current historical understanding, Truman made another fortune after he left the Presidency, by doing precisely what he claimed he was not doing, that is, exploiting his status as a former President to maximum economic advantage. Indeed, by the time Congress passed the FPA in response to Truman’s various claims that he was at least teetering on the brink of potential financial distress, Truman’s net worth was, in relative economic terms, approximately $72 million in 2021 dollars.”
Well, there goes that newfound respect! Truman was a member of the corrupt Prendergast political machine in Kansas City before entering national politics, so this isn’t as much of a surprise as it would be for some other icons.