Alex Forman

Truman, 33rd, 1945–53

Harry S. Truman's ramrod posture made him recognizable even with his back to the camera. He was a war president, a postwar president, and a cold-war president.

Truman always drove too fast.

He was afflicted from boyhood with poor eyesight and he was left-handed but forced to use his right. By the time he was fourteen, he had read every book in the public library at Independence, Missouri. He married Bess, his sweetheart from the fifth grade. Truman was the last president not to earn a college degree.

When a peach pit lodged in his throat, his mother saved his life by quick action: She pushed the pit down his throat with her finger.

He was briefed about the atomic bomb for only thirty minutes, after he had become president.

Truman gave strong approval for a judicial process and said in support of the Nuremberg Trials, "Never again can men say, "I was following orders." And never again can men in power give such orders."

"Had dinner by myself tonight," Truman noted in 1949. "Barnett in tails and white tie pulls out my chair, pushes me up to the table. John in tails and white tie brings me a fruit cup. Barnett takes the empty cup. . . . John comes in with a napkin and silver crumb tray—there are no crumbs but John has to brush them off the table anyway . . . I take the hand bath in the finger bowl and go back to work." He was the first president to be paid a salary of $100,000.

Truman could play the piano for foreign dignitaries one day, and the next he could propose legislation so visionary that it would not be enacted for a decade—such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Medicare of 1965.

He said, "I've got the most awful responsibility a man ever had. If you fellows ever pray, pray for me." He wrote in his journal on January 6, 1947: "This great white jail is a hell of a place in which to be alone. The floors pop and crack all night long. Anyone with imagination can see old Jim Buchanan walking up and down worrying about conditions not of his making. Then there's Van Buren who inherited a terrible mess from his predecessor, as did poor old James Madison. Of course Andrew Johnson was the worst mistreated of any of them. . . . So the tortured souls who were and are misrepresented in history are the ones who come back."

d. December 26, 1972 (Kansas City, Missouri), at 88, of heart failure and pulmonary congestion.