U.S. At War: The Missouri Compromise

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On stage, a rake-voiced orator tripped through his garden of adjectives. The man he was describing sat amidst the delegates below, hunched forward in his chair, sneaking bites from a hot dog and sips from a paper cup of soda pop, paying no more attention to the routine speech than the rest of the audience did. The speech was about him, but neat, grey little Harry Shippe Truman, 60, has heard thousands of speeches in his years of politics.

Harry Truman is no man to be taken in by adjectives. To Party workers, after he became the Democratic Vice Presidential nominee, he said simply: "I am a work horse." The description was apt: it covered his principal virtues, which are industry and loyalty; and it covered his principal defect, which is a drab mediocrity.

Harry & Tom. In 1934 Boss Tom Pendergast, the corrupt Kansas City politico, was looking for a respectable name to sweeten up the noisome Pendergast ticket. Harry Truman, a likable plodder, had lived a clean life: he did not smoke, and did not like his womenfolk to smoke; he was a high Mason; he had married the girl he went to Sunday School with; he had been a World War I hero (an artillery captain, he saved his panicky battery from a German trap in the St. Mihiel fighting). He was a farm boy become county judge, with friends "in the sticks" to add to Pendergast's slick Kansas City machine.

Harry Truman had also been utterly loyal for twelve years to Boss Pendergast—ever since he had lost all his money ($15,000) in a postwar Kansas City haberdashery venture, and Pendergast had started him off as a county road overseer. By 1934 Harry Truman had become presiding judge of Jackson County, Mo. (which in Missouri is actually the county's administrative officer; as such he spent $25,000,000 on roads and buildings). He was ripe for another step up the ladder, and asked Pendergast for the county collectorship. Big Tom replied: "The best I can do now, Harry, is a United States Senatorship; how's that?"

Truman, who had never aspired so high, was elected Senator, benefiting from the lists of dead people whom Tom Pendergast habitually voted every election. Five years later Pendergast was sent to the penitentiary for a $443,550 income tax evasion. Said Harry Truman: "I won't desert a ship in distress." Years later he added: "Tom Pendergast never asked me to do a dishonest deed. He knew I wouldn't do it. When Tom Pendergast was down and out, a convicted man, [people] wanted me to denounce him. I refused. . . . I wouldn't kick a friend." Newsmen who battled the Pendergast dynasty agreed that Truman himself was untouched by scandal.

The Investigator. World War II lifted him from obscurity as a faithful, machine-run Senator who dutifully caught the 7:30 bus to his Senate office and dutifully voted 100% New Deal. (His mother, 91, reads the Congressional Record regularly back in Missouri, and reprimands him by mail if he misses a roll call.)

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