President Harry Truman stepped out of his gold Honda Civic, looked up to the overcast sky and sighed.
“Looks like it’s going to be Dewey weather.”
Truman weather, he noted, was sunny with bright blue skies.
He used his cane to walk up the ramp toward the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum. It’s another day in the office for the president, well, for Independence resident Niel Johnson, that is.
As a former history professor and museum archivist, Johnson has studied Truman, and has impersonated him more than 700 times. It’s gotten to the point where he doesn’t feel like he’s pretending. When he speaks, the use of “Truman” and “I” becomes interchangeable. He can perfectly recite lines from Truman’s speeches, diaries and even love letters.
“We’re really not sure if Niel Johnson is Harry Truman or if Harry Truman is Niel Johnson,” said Amy Williams, the Truman library’s deputy director.
It’s as if the spirit of the president has remained in Independence and is looking at the world through the rectangular — not round, that’s where they differ — glasses of this 84-year-old man. In a time where politicians’ messages seem filled with empty promises, Johnson is a fierce advocate of Truman’s old-fashioned plain speaking. But this Fourth of July may be Johnson’s last as one of the few Truman impersonators in the country. He plans to retire from his role as the 33rd president within the year.
Inside the library, a little blond girl, not yet in grade school, leaned over a railing on her tippy toes attempting to see the part of the exhibit that detailed a typical day for Truman.
“Boy, I was a busy president wasn’t I?” Johnson said. She whipped around, surprised to see a man wearing a gray suit, red bow tie and cream straw hat standing behind her.
“Hello, I’m Harry Truman,” Johnson said, shaking the girl’s hand. “It’s nice to see you.”
Johnson makes it his mission to shake hands with every visitor. On this Father’s Day, parents asked him to take a photo with their baby, and older women giggled while their husbands posed with him. And for kicks, he took out a worn out “Dewey defeats Truman” Chicago Daily Tribune replica newspaper from his inside jacket pocket.
The resemblance is almost bizarre. Johnson could pass as Truman’s relative and, at times, has. Like the president, Johnson has a full head of thin, silvery hair and parts it on the left. Both have soft dimples and deep blue eyes.
He holds press conferences for the visitors, which gives them the opportunity to ask questions about Truman and his presidency. Johnson told this group he wouldn’t invent any answers; it’s not the president’s style.
What were your thoughts on Gen. MacArthur?
He was a prima donna, stuffed-shirt five-star general, Johnson shot back.
What did Bess Truman, his wife, think of the White House?
She referred to it as the “Big White Jail,” he chuckled.
Without fail, Johnson is asked about the president’s decision to drop the atomic bomb over Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II — a decision still analyzed by historians today. Johnson’s support for the atomic bomb is much deeper than agreement. He’s grateful.
His older brother joined the Navy in June 1945. If the U.S. had invaded Japan, he would most likely have been on the front lines. Truman’s decision to drop the bomb ended the war and allowed his brother to avoid deployment to Japan.
“The bomb may have saved my brother’s life,” he said, his voice breaking a bit. “Even now, veterans will come up, point to me and say, ‘You saved my life.’”
Johnson and Truman had similar upbringings, both raised on small Midwestern farms by middle class families. Though he leaned Republican, Johnson’s father respected Truman, a Democrat, for relating to the many Americans who were in debt. He even took Johnson and his brother to see Truman during his whistle-stop tour in 1948.
But Johnson did surpass Truman in education, earning both a master’s and doctorate in American history from the University of Iowa. He was a professor at Augustana College, Dana College and University of Nebraska-Omaha before becoming an archivist and oral historian at the Truman library from 1977 to1992.
The first time he dressed up as the president was in 1993 for a class he was teaching at Park University about Truman’s legacy. A simple idea to spice up the lecture quickly turned into appearing as Truman up to 70 times a year.
With Truman such a part of Independence’s identity, Johnson has become a large part of the community, said Cori Day, the city’s director of tourism. Johnson regularly attends major city events, and she’s seen him walk the streets as Truman and randomly introduce himself to tourists. Almost everyone in Independence knows of him, she said.
He’s met former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, numerous first ladies and Truman biographer David McCullough. Just last week he ate hamburgers with William Shatner, who was in town on a cross-country tour, and was filmed for the actor’s upcoming documentary. He’s driven Truman’s daughter, Margaret, around Independence and has traveled across the country to impersonate the president, meeting Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and George Washington along the way.
The staff at the Truman library isn’t sure what to do when Johnson “decides to hang up his hat,” since he’s contributed so much, said Williams, the deputy director. Johnson helped complete the library’s oral history program, which consisted of more than 60 interviews with White House officials, Secret Service agents and neighbors who were close to Truman. Those interviews provided details and anecdotes Johnson uses for his press conferences, but also for his book “Power, Money, and Women: Words to the Wise From Harry S. Truman.”
Johnson has amassed Truman memorabilia — “Vote for Truman” stickers, binders of photos, newspaper clippings — but his most valuable item appears on the cover of his book. It’s a photo Johnson took of Truman at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum dedication in Iowa in 1962. It was the second, and last, time Johnson would see Truman in person, and he regrets fumbling with the camera when the president walked past him.
“I wish I could have shaken his hand,” he said.
When he finished answering the last question at the last press conference of the day, Johnson lifted his straw hat in appreciation for the round of applause and exited the auditorium.
“I gotta get home to Bess,” Johnson said, while waving goodbye to the library staff. His visits have decreased over the years, to where they’re now just holidays and for special exhibits. And though his wife, Verna Gail, died years ago, he does have a “special friend” who occasionally impersonates Truman’s wife.
As he headed outside, a smile came across his face. “Oh looks like it might be Truman weather after all,” he said. The storm had passed and the sun was emerging.
He’ll be wrapping up his time as Truman within the year, though he doesn’t have a definite end date. Johnson’s new, full-time hobby will be working on his family’s biography about their journey from Sweden to Illinois. He already has 2,600 pages.
And even after hundreds of appearances as the president, he’s never grown tired of learning about Truman. He’s played him for so many years, simply because he agrees with Truman on “97 percent” of the issues. Being known as the Harry Truman impersonator is an honor to Johnson, because he’s playing a president who had values.
And what in Johnson’s eyes made Truman so great?
“A president has to have imagination,” Johnson said. “And a wide knowledge of history.”
HAIL TO THE CHIEF
See Harry Truman impersonator Niel Johnson at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on the Fourth of July and Labor Day (Sept. 7) and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. July 11, Aug. 8 and Sept. 12.
The library, at 500 U.S. 24, Independence, is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $8 for adults, $7 for seniors 65 and older, $3 for children ages 6 to 15 and free for children 5 and under. Call 816-268-8200 or go to TrumanLibrary.org.