In a last grasp to find something new to watch, I landed on the 1961 interview of President Harry S. Truman by a young David Susskind.
My kids thought I’d finally reached the end of the internet and all streaming services. I was more than discouraged to hear both ask, “Who’s that?”
They lasted about 15 minutes in my attempt to incorporate Give ’em hell, Harry on Amazon Prime into their distance learning.
It’s not a flashy program or documentary. It’s the original black-and-white footage with no frills, graphics or fillers.
The show is something people today never see. This was just Susskind (and his cigarette) talking for nearly two hours with 77-year-old Truman in a crisp suit.
The president, known to be a bit salty, answered questions in a straight-forward, cordial manner about a wide range of topics including the Soviet “menace,” public education, his daily schedule, the United Nations, atomic power, post-World War II rebuilding and presidential history.
Much has been written about Truman, including an award-winning book by David McCullough. But there is something more personal when seeing and hearing from the person now considered a historical figure.
It was also a throwback to when political rancor wasn’t expected or used as theater. There was always a goal of public professionalism and courtesy.
What a quaint time when the biggest scandal was the president writing a colorful letter to a Washington Post music critic for not liking his daughter’s professional vocal performance.
A glaring issue Truman repeatedly brought up was one that hasn’t changed … or improved.
Truman had been spending time on the lecture circuit, preferring youthful audiences. Most young voters didn’t understand the workings of government and craved information, he said.
The lack of knowledge was a result of overwhelmed school systems, he said, noting the increase of student enrollment from the baby boom.
“They have not the facilities, the teachers are underpaid and they don’t have a chance to inform themselves properly to talk to the youngsters,” Truman said. “Now, we have a wonderful line of schoolteachers in this country, but they are treated just like they were not of any use to the country, and that is fundamental.
“Next to mother and father in the home, the teachers in the first three or four grades in school are the most important people in this country.”
Truman didn’t want to be president but was talked into the vice presidency by President Franklin Roosevelt and Democratic leaders.
By that time, Truman had spent almost 40 years in politics and was getting pretty done with it.
“You know what the trouble is with these old birds that hang on to their offices and don’t give the youngsters a chance to come on, they keep people from being educated to run the government of the United States, and it’s not right,” Truman said.
“When you’ve had your turn, you ought to get out and give somebody else a chance.”
Oh, how he would have understood the frustration of us Gen-Xers. Even in our middle age, my generation can’t seem to get someone in the White House.
The show was an introduction to a series filmed in Independence, Missouri, to be archived at his library.
“There will be no justification of anything,” he said. “There will be no apologies but just giving the facts.”
Equally interesting is the following one-hour interview with Susskind, Merle Miller and Robert Aurther, who all worked on the series. That show aired to promote the publication of Miller’s 1973 book, “Plain Speaking,” based on Truman interviews.
This is a great tell-all among old-school journalists, complete with a leisure jacket, turtlenecks, a fog of smoke and disagreements.
After the well-spoken Truman piece, this was a balance to show the president’s courser side.
The journalists recounted going to a Howard Johnson’s restaurant with the intoxicated former president and how his every other word was “son of a bitch” or “dammit.”
They told how his mother-in-law was an “impossible,” anti-Semitic woman, who wouldn’t allow Jewish people in her home. But Truman had a significant role in the establishment of Israel.
Truman used racist and ethnic slurs in private company and kept old notions about the role of women.
He also desegregated the military in 1948 through an executive order and signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act that same year, allowing women to enlist in all military branches in expanded roles.
So, Truman was a complicated man. These dichotomies make for interesting, and baffling, subjects.
Truman’s popular appeal was in his homespun, off-the-cuff speeches. He didn’t mince words and had definitive opinions.
Voters still like that today.
“I never in my life intentionally made a provocative statement,” Truman said. “When people ask me where I stand on certain subjects, I tell ’em and tell ’em why. And whenever I see that the opposition is misrepresenting the facts, I tell ’em what the facts are, and they used to charge me with giving ’em hell.”
Like every president, Truman had a love-hate relationship with the press. He made a distinction between his like of the “working press” of reporters and photographers and the publishers, with whom he quarreled.
An unapologetic party loyalist, he believed good presidents butted heads with Congress but didn’t hold grudges — a nice lesson for today’s lawmakers.
“A man who carries his political troubles into personalities is the man who caused the trouble,” he said.
In the end, Susskind was a fan, predicting Truman’s place among the great presidents, an assertion the president humbly demurred (another lesson for today’s lawmakers).
“I don’t think I belong in that class. Only history can put me there if I deserve it.”