By Kaleena Fraga
(To check out this piece in podcast form, click here)
January 20th is full of stories of the passage of power from one administration to the next. Since 1936 presidents have been inaugurated on this day, so so there is plenty to remember–FDR marking the beginning of his unprecedented 3rd and 4th terms; Eisenhower playfully lassoed by a cowboy; Jimmy Carter & Rosalynn Carter walking the inauguration route in spite of the protests of the Secret Service–the list goes on and on.
Still, there’s one event worth reflecting on which happened the next day, on January 21st, 1961, and this is President Truman’s invitation to the White House. It was his first time returning to the White House since he’d left eight years earlier.
Truman had left in 1953 after a hard defeat for his party. Eisenhower had won a decisive victory over the Democratic candidate, Adlai Stevenson, whom Truman encouraged to run, becoming the first Republican victor in 20 years. Still, Truman was gracious in defeat. He invited Ike to the White House in November 1952 to talk about the job, but later wrote that all he had said to Ike “went into one ear and out the other.” He later postulated that Ike, a war hero, would be unsuited to the task of president. “He’ll sit right here and he’ll say do this, do that! And nothing will happen. Poor Ike–it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.”
Inauguration itself had been an awkward affair. Eisenhower, determined to not step foot in the White House that day until he could do so as president, disregarded the tradition of calling on the current president & first lady. The Eisenhowers declined the Trumans’ invitation to lunch, or even a cup of coffee, and did not come out of their car until Truman appeared outside of the White House. As they drove off, an aid to President Truman remarked that he was glad to not be in the car.
Despite all this, Truman had invited Eisenhower’s son, John, currently serving in Korea, back to the States to watch his father’s inauguration. Neither son nor father knew it had been the president’s orders until Eisenhower asked Truman in the car. According to Eisenhower, Truman simply replied: “I did.”
But any thaw that took place during the car ride had little effect on the Truman/Eisenhower relationship. Shortly after the ceremony ended, Truman returned to Missouri, where he’d largely remain for Ike’s next two terms. It seems the two presidents had little contact during that time. When Ike was in Missouri Truman tried to set up a meeting, but was told that the president’s schedule was much too full. Later in life, according to Truman biographer David McCullough, he could hardly refer to Eisenhower without using profanity.
Truman didn’t exactly start off much better with the man destined to replace Eisenhower. During the Democratic convention in 1961, Truman spoke out against Kennedy, saying:
“I am deeply concerned and troubled about the situation we are up against in the world now…That is why I hope someone with the greatest possible maturity and experience would be available at this time. May I urge you to be patient?”
Kennedy shrugged off the criticism. He had fourteen years in major political office–that was enough.
When Kennedy did become the nominee, Truman offered up his services. But he had his doubts. Writing to his former Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, he declared that “[we] are stuck with the necessity of taking the worst of two evils or none at all. So–I’m taking the immature Democrat as the best of the two. Nixon is impossible. So, there we are.”
Despite his lackluster support, Truman, then seventy-six, went in all for Kennedy. He traveled to nine states and delivered thirteen speeches in support of the Democratic candidate.
Kennedy was grateful. As a gesture of thanks, he made Truman his first official guest to the White House, the day after his inauguration in 1961.
Truman, a talented piano player, was even invited to take up the keys after a formal dinner.
Truman later wrote of his disappointment that Kennedy did not call on him for advice during his presidency. Later in Kennedy’s term, Truman wrote Acheson to say, “You must remember that our head of State is young, inexperienced and hopeful. Lets hope the hopeful works.”
In any case, Kennedy’s overture to Truman is a reminder that inaugurations don’t have to be chilly affairs–rather, they can be an occasion for mending bridges. Truman would certainly note–especially after the Bay of Pigs–that current presidents have much to learn from the men who occupied the office before them. A lesson that could be applied to 1961 as any political era.
Special thanks to David McCullough’s fantastic tome “Truman”