Guest Commentary

Bring the legacy of Harry S. Truman into the future

Ming Xue Liu of Lee’s Summit posed with a Truman statue so friends from the Lee’s Summit Community Church could get a picture after a naturalization ceremony in 2013.
Ming Xue Liu of Lee’s Summit posed with a Truman statue so friends from the Lee’s Summit Community Church could get a picture after a naturalization ceremony in 2013. The Kansas City Star

When his library in Independence was completed in 1957, my grandfather Harry S. Truman moved into his new office there. It overlooked the central courtyard and the spot he had chosen as his and my grandmother’s final resting place. When she asked him why he’d chosen that place, he joked that it if he felt like working after he was gone, he could get up and walk to his office. She was not amused.

During the early years, he worked there almost every day. He wrote, met friends, answered correspondence and walked the halls. Years ago, I met a lady who said when she and her family visited the library during that era, they asked a docent if President Truman was around. “Why, yes, he is,” she said, then promptly brought him out to say hello.

The library will close July 23 for a year, during which it will undergo a major transformation — thanks to the generosity of the good folks of Independence and Kansas City and their elected officials. Plans include a new entrance with a two-story atrium and a much-needed update to the exhibits, which will make use of the latest scholarship on the Truman era and the best technology to bring the story to life.

When renovations are complete, my grandfather will be back in residence, at least in spirit. The exhibits will reflect the man: his strengths and weaknesses, the quirks and qualities that helped him lead this country through one of the most consequential periods in world history.

“Truman the human,” they called him when he visited Key West: strong-willed, hardworking, straightforward, accessible and empathetic — qualities born, maybe even invented, in the heart of Missouri.

I give lectures on my grandfather, and people often ask afterward what I think was his most significant accomplishment. They expect me to say the Marshall Plan, ending the war in the Pacific, the Truman Doctrine or the Berlin Airlift. But this is my answer: Harry Truman’s most significant accomplishment is to remind us that a middle-class American, a farmer, a citizen soldier, a small businessman, can rise to the highest office in the land and do a better job than almost anybody else.

He remained unaffected by the trappings of power. Not long after he retired back to Independence in 1953, a car broke down in front of the house. The driver didn’t know where he was. The Secret Service was long gone (ex-presidents would not have protection until after John F. Kennedy’s assassination) and there was no sign advertising the “Truman Home.” So the driver walked through the front gate, up the walk and rang the doorbell. Grandpa answered.

“My car died,” the man said. “May I use your phone?” “Sure,” Grandpa said. “Come in.” The man called a local mechanic, who said he’d be right over.

Grandpa and the driver waited in the front hall, chatting about cars, until the mechanic arrived. “Thank you,” the driver said, shaking Grandpa’s hand. “I appreciate the help.” “Not at all,” Grandpa said. “I hope the fix isn’t too expensive.”

The driver walked out and was halfway down the front steps before he stopped and turned. “You know something,” he said. “And please don’t take offense at this — but you look a lot like that S.O.B. Harry Truman.”

Grandpa just smiled. “You know something,” he said. “And I hope you don’t take offense at this. But I am that S.O.B.”

All joking aside, we have received extraordinary support. We ask the community to continue to embrace my grandfather’s legacy by supporting the Truman Library.

Clifton Truman Daniel, President Harry S. Truman’s oldest grandson, is honorary chairman of the Truman Library Institute and board secretary for the Truman Scholarship Foundation. He has written two books on his grandparents and plays his grandfather on stage in the one-man show, “Give ‘Em Hell, Harry!”