5/18/12 - two small-town presidents

In today's excerpt - between the tenures of two big-city presidents, Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy—described by historian Arthur Schlesinger as "patrician, urbane, cultivated, inquisitive, gallant"—came two small-town presidents, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. They were described in a Newsweek issue of the time as the Kennedys' "dowdy" predecessors. Though they clashed, Truman and Eisenhower had much in common and grew up only 163 miles apart in Independence, Missouri and Abilene, Kansas:

"Harry S Truman and Dwight David Eisenhower, the last American presidents to be born in the nineteenth century, would have much in common. They were both ... grandsons of farmers. They were both sons of fathers who were respected but whose lives were inter­rupted by failure; both were children of forceful mothers in strong fami­lies. As we have seen, they were both small-town boys (in 1890, Abilene's population was 3,547; Independence's, 6,380).

"Each of them was born, as the result of reverses in his father's work life, in small towns (Truman in Lamar, Missouri, population 2,036; Eisenhower in Denison, Texas, population 10,768). They were both from the lower-middle class (John Truman, a mule trader; David Eisenhower, a mechanic at a dairy); both were educated in the small town's public schools; both were brought up in a low-church Protestant denomination (Truman a Baptist, Eisenhower an Anabaptist). Both would occasionally refer to the planet Earth, as no other recent president would be likely to do, as 'God's footstool.' Both were graduated, as we have noted, in a class with more girls than boys from the small town's one high school.

"They were both externally minded sons of the middle border, active, purposeful. They both did well in school. They both liked history. They both were drawn to generals. They both admired Robert E. Lee, and both of them admired and knew about Hannibal. Neither of them was likely to become a lyric poet or a metaphysician.

"Both worked hard when young (Truman at J. H. Clinton's Drug Store; Eisenhower at the Belle Springs Dairy). Neither had an assured college future. Harry Truman wanted to go to West Point but accidentally (because of his eyes) could not; Dwight Eisenhower had no particular desire to go there but accidentally did go.

"They were both conscientious midwesterners with a strong sense of duty. They would both spend their entire careers in public service. They were both honest with respect to money. Neither one of them would own the house that he lived in until his entire career was over. Truman lived and died probably the poorest of twentieth-century presidents, certainly the poorest of the last fifty years. Eisenhower, in spite of book sales and rich friends, would not be among the richest.

"Both married 'above themselves' and had lifelong marriages. Harry Truman displayed a spectacular devotion to Bess Wallace from the time he met her in the Presbyterian Sunday school when he was six until he died at eighty-eight. Through twenty-nine years of courtship and fifty-three years of marriage, he was faithful, apparently, despite life in the army in France, innumerable road trips as a traveling politician, regular attendance at American Legion conventions, and months of living alone in Washing­ton, eating in Hot Shoppes, while Bess and Margaret went back to Inde­pendence. Dwight Eisenhower kept his marriage together through twenty-five years in the military camps of a peacetime army, seventeen different places of residence, a radical four-year wartime separation while he lived on another continent from his wife and became famous, as well as the focus of gossip because of his relationship with his driver, Kay Summersby, and then through twenty-four more years of fame, power, and retirement.

"Both men had a straightforward, uncomplicated patriotism. The chief living moral model for both of them would be the same man: George Marshall. Truman chose him instead of the slippery Franklin Roosevelt; Eisenhower preferred him to the flamboyant Douglas MacArthur.

"Although members of the Lost Generation, neither of them was lost. Although members of their generation engaged in the 'revolt from the village' after the Great War and lived in Paris, neither of these villagers revolted. Neither went to Paris, or to anywhere else in Europe, except when sent there by the army."


William Lee Miller


Two Americans: Truman, Eisenhower, and a Dangerous World


Random House


Copyright 2012 by William Lee Miller


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