Today’s Chief Executive is Harry Truman, failed haberdasher and artillery battery commander.
Truman was born in Lamar, Missouri in 1884 and worked on the family farm into his twenties, when he was drafted into the Army and served in France during World War I. The artillery brigade he served with provided support for a guy you might have heard of, then-Colonel George S. Patton.
After the war, Truman returned to Missouri and went into politics, eventually winning election to the Senate. There was some scandal associated with this; Truman was seen, wrongly, as it turned out, as a product of the Kansas City political machine. He became Vice President through a series of events that disqualified most of his rivals; Franklin Roosevelt had little choice but to put him on the ticket as he was the only candidate who hadn’t offended some major Democratic constituency.
Roosevelt died less than three months into his fourth term; Truman was notified of his ascendance to the Presidency in what had to be one of the most sphincter-clenching conversations of all time. Remember, World War II was still raging, not to mention the million other pressures a president faces. As Truman recalled it, it went like this: Truman received a call to the White House. Rushing in, he stopped at the secretary’s desk.
Truman: I need to speak to the President right away.
Secretary: Sir, you ARE the President.
Truman guided the nation through the rest of the war, and made the controversial decision to drop the A-bomb on Japan. He justified it as ultimately saving millions of lives that would have been lost invading Japan, which might very well be true.
After the war the economy tanked after ramping down from war production and millions of unemployed soldiers came home, sapping Truman’s popularity. He also made some unpopular decisions; he integrated the military by executive order and was the first head of state to recognize the newly proclaimed State of Israel.
Truman was thought to have no chance of winning reelection in 1948 against popular New York governor Thomas Dewey; civil rights legislation split the party, leading to Strom Thurmond’s notorious “Dixiecrats,” and a surge in communist sentiment further diluted the liberal voting bloc.
The most famous picture of Truman shows him holding up a copy of the Chicago Tribune with the headline “Dewey Defeats Truman”. As it turned out, Truman’s folksy, responsible, “the-buck-stops-here” style played well in America’s heartland, and they carried him to the win.
After his Presidency, Truman continued to lead the fight for government-sponsored health care; he and his wife Bess received the first two Medicare cards issued from President Lyndon Johnson at a signing ceremony at the Truman Library in 1965.
Truman died in Kansas City in 1972 at the ripe old age of 88. He outlived Dewey by a year, so you could say he defeated Dewey that way, too.