Billion-Dollar Watchdog

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World War I pulled him off the farm again. He went to France a lieutenant, became captain of the 129th Field Artillery's rough-&-tumble Battery D. He was shy, reserved, wore big shell-rimmed glasses: to his pugnacious Irish privates he looked like something of a milquetoast. At the start he was perhaps the most unpopular captain in France. But he led his men doggedly through St. Mihiel and the Argonne, spiked a panic when German artillery once drew a bead on his battery, lost only one soldier killed and one wounded, was promoted to major. On the ship back from France his men took a cut out of all crap games, bought him a monstrous loving cup four feet high and big enough to hold ten gallons.

The war, brightest spot in Truman's pre-Senate record, was soon followed by the saddest. With a soldier buddy and $15,000 saved and borrowed, he opened a haberdashery on Kansas City's sporty Twelfth Street, roamed behind the counters selling socks, neckties and garters. In twelve months the store went broke, with debts it took years to pay off.

At 37, Harry Truman, bottle duster, bank clerk and would-be haberdasher, was bogged deep in failure. All he had to show for his career was an old army uniform and a loving cup too ostentatious to keep on the mantel.

Errand Boy. Most U.S. political machines, however disreputable, have two saving graces to their credit: 1) they are close enough to the people to know basic human desires, tragedies and needs; 2) their bosses, earthy and disillusioned men, have sometimes found talent where more snobbish souls would never have thought to look. In 1921, with his haberdashery under the hammer and black days ahead, Truman looked up some old servicemen friends in the Pendergast organization. Truman was a veteran, a farmer, a Mason, a Democrat from three generations back; he had friends all over Jackson County. The machine made him road overseer, then country judge (an administrative post), finally U.S. Senator.

Truman was no ball of fire in his first term. He sat meekly in the freshman row, blinked when critics called him Pendergast's "errand boy," was second only to Pennsylvania's Joseph Guffey (whose vote for New Deal measures was pure automatic reflex) in unswerving support of Administration policies.

On Burt Wheeler's Interstate Commerce Committee, he showed unexpected talents as an investigator of railroad high shenanigans. (He and canny Burt Wheeler are still good friends, despite their schism on foreign policy.) But this was too esoteric an assignment to impress many voters back home. They saw him chiefly in another light.

A young U.S. attorney named Maurice M. Milligan was cleaning up Kansas City, sending one Pendergast henchman after another to jail for vote frauds, getting closer & closer to the Big Boss himself. When Milligan came up for reappointment, Truman did his best to ease him out, made one of the bitterest speeches ever heard on the Senate floor. Milligan got the reappointment anyway, promptly sent Pendergast to prison for evading income taxes on some of his slush money. Truman shouted: "Purely political. . . . I won't desert a ship in distress. . . ."

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