Monday, February 20, 2017

"It's to you, Harry..."

On election night, 1948, photo credit, Bryon Rollis, AP, fair use claimed, full link here.

Greetings All:

It's President's Day.  Contrary to the wishes of Homer Simpson, we no longer get to claim both Lincoln and Washington's birthday as a holiday.  Instead, we honor all our presidents today.  There will be no mail and I'm pretty sure garbage "night" is now Wednesday as trash pickup is bumped a day ahead.  There is no school and while I will get (some) work done today, I won't be wearing a tie.

I have not written for a couple of weeks.  I've got a couple of posts in the works but I wanted to slip in this one as it is a day to recall those who held a certain Federal office.  

When one thinks of our Presidents, who comes mind?  There's the two previously mentioned:  Washington and Lincoln.  Our current President, Donald J. Trump, regardless of how one feels about him, certainly has created news.  He replaced a man, Barack H. Obama, who also caused strong emotions to stir in people, both positive and negative.  

Then there are the Presidents we've kinda forgotten about.  Martin Van Buren was the eighth President.  (And yes, I had to look that up to be sure I was right about that fact.)  You can read more about him 

I refer to myself as a "hobby historian."  I love the subject yet the more I learn about it, the more I realize how much I don't know.  It seems like with every book or podcast I come across, I learn more about it.  History, after all, is about people.  Oh sure, there's the history of the planet and the death of the dinosaurs, but what really matters to us is the people and what they did that impact our lives today.

For America, there is no person who can impact history, for good or for ill, than the President.  We've had 45 of them and each one played his part on the historical stage.

Then there were those who never achieved that office.  Hillary Clinton (whom I voted for in two primary and one general election) came agonizingly close.  Then, there were those who were part of the government, a "heartbeat away" as they like to say.  History is replete of those whose ambitions were denied by the electorate.  

Oh, and history would be incomplete without villains.  Thanks to the amazing musical, "Hamilton," the world knows about the treasonous acts of Vice President Arron Burr.  Here was another guy who wanted the top job and was ruthless in his pursuit of power.  Old Nicky M would have have been proud of him, to say the least. 

How about we here a little music on this subject, shall we?  Thanks to our friends at YouTube we can watch the first performance of "Hamilton" at the White House in 2009.  Here you go, enjoy!

So as to my favorite President?  Well, I have many that I admire.  Yet if I had to ping one as my favorite, that would be the man from Independence, Missouri.  A failed small business owner and a man whose own mother-in-law voted against in the 1948 election.  His formal education ended after high school and he was about as far removed from his boss, Franklin Delano Roosevelt in class and status.  He enjoyed bourbon (Old Grand Dad was a favorite, as I recall) and playing poker. 

Rumor has it (although an exhaustive 12-minute internet search failed to confirm this fact) Truman was playing poker when he was summoned to the White House on April 12, 1945 around 5:30 p.m.  It was then he learned that he was about to sit down at a table of truly "no limits."  FDR had died and a few hours later, he was President of the United States.

Unlike others, Truman had no sincere presidential ambitions.  He had already exceeded expectations.  He was not picked to be FDR's running mate in 1944 not so much for who he was, but for what he was not.  The current Veep, Henry Wallace, had gotten uncontrollable.  Another candidate, James (Jimmy) Burns had exemplary political credentials, yet was from South Carolina at a time where segregation was sadly still in full effect.  Truman, from Missouri, was a solid, safe choice.  

Truman did have certain character traits that were admirable.  He was a hard worker who took his role as a Senator seriously.  He had been an artillery captain in World War I and could relate to the life and death decisions war leaders have to make.  He was also well-liked by colleagues.  It may seem hard to believe in this era where the battle lines in our current political world are akin to the trench warfare Truman saw (and heard and smelled) of World War I, yet back then, politicians talked to each other.  They socialized together and (gasp!) were even friends.  All these qualities made him FDR's VP...for about 83 days.

Truman was far from a perfect man.  He had a temper and might have made decisions that were driven from too much of an "all politics is local" standpoint.  Yet he was a man of principal.  He desegreated the military in 1948.  When Stalin shut down the roads to West Berlin, Truman refused to take the bait and start World War III, instead initiating the Berlin Airlift.  This effort not only prevented war but kept West Berlin free, miles inside the Iron Curtain of post-war Soviet domination.  

Truman was not supposed to win election in 1948.  The photo that opens this blog post is of him showing the (dare I say it, "fake news") incorrect headline of him losing to the presumptive winner, Thomas Dewey of New York.  Talk about drawing an inside straight...

Truman never had the benefit of a transition period.  He was both mocked and despised by many, including those whom owed him their service and subordination.  Still, he kept playing the cards he was dealt.  Here's a good read on Truman that articulates this point better than I can.

I don't play poker often, hardly ever, actually.  I've heard it is a game that requires a variety of skills to be employed simultaneously.  I suppose aside from the math skills, one has to read people as well as cards. Truman played this game well, very well.  (Please read this terrific story by a true historian,Michael Beschloss that is linked in the previous sentence.)
And I do not mean just at friendly card games.  I also mean at the most dangerous poker room in the world from '45-53.  

Retired President Truman playing poker, photo from the Truman Library, fair use claimed.

If you play any type of strategy game, from cards to chess, sometimes the thing you DON'T want is to have to make a decision, a move.  I probably lost more games of chess against my Scoutmaster growing up because I made the wrong move late in the game.  Yet sometimes in a game, in life, you don't have the option of not making a move.  That can be an inconvenient fact, aggravated by the fact your opponent probably knows what your going to do next.

If you love, or even like history, then I highly, highly recommend you check out Dan Carlin's Hardcore History podcast.  He is an amazing storyteller and goes into a deep dive of historical fact with the skill of a seasoned screenplay writer.  I have a link above to the episode I just listened to, "The Destroyer of Worlds."  I'm compelled by my conscience to point out that Mr. Carlin captures the poker analogy wonderful and I'm (kinda) backing up the truck to steal this line for my blog post.  (In fact, I will reference this podcast likely again in a future blog post.  But let's see if I stay focused enough to finish it...)

So here's to my favorite President, Harry S. Truman.  He played the cards he was dealt about as well as possible.  When the game turned to Truman, be it in a friendly game in Kansas City or on the world stage, he kept his poker face when someone said, "It's to you, Harry."

Be well my friends,


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