Adventures with Grandpa Truman
Spring 2009, vol. 41, no. 1
By Clifton Truman Daniel
© 2009 by Clifton Truman Daniel
I was six years old before I discovered that my grandfather had been President of the United States. That's because my parents kept it from me. Up to that time, Grandpa Truman was just someone who came around from time to time and was either to be accorded a great deal of respect or avoided entirely. And you avoided him because he had some very odd ideas about how children should spend their free time.
When I was very young, my grandparents often visited us at our Park Avenue apartment in New York. They actually stayed down the street at the Carlyle Hotel on Madison, where my mother, Margaret, had lived in the early 1950s while pursuing a radio and television career.
Grandpa kept to the same routine every morning. He got up before the sun, a habit he acquired as a farmer, and went for a one-mile walk at a military pace, 120 steps per minute. He often said that any more than a mile walk each day didn't do a man over 40 any good. He then ate a light breakfast and grabbed as many different newspapers as the hotel offered. (He also said you couldn't get an accurate picture of events from just one newspaper.) Tucking the papers under his arm, he walked up the block to our apartment, let himself in with the spare key, sat down in the living room, and read until someone woke up. In our house that could take a while.
My younger brother William and I were the first ones down one morning, and as we reached the bottom of the stairs, we saw what looked like the New York Times with a pair of legs, sitting by itself in the living room. We knew who was behind the paper, so we started to tiptoe past him to get to the den where my parents kept the television set. Grandpa lowered the paper to turn the page and caught us.
"Where do you think you're going?" he asked.
"Into the den to watch TV," I said.
"You don't want to do that," he said.
I'm thinking, "Yeah, I do. That's why we were tiptoeing."
"I have a better idea," he said.
With that, he stood, walked past us into the den, and reached up to the top shelf for a book.
"Come on out here and sit by me," he said.
You didn't argue with him, so we sat down and he opened the book and began to read. About 20 minutes later, Mom came downstairs, her eyes half open and her hair standing on end, and stopped cold at the sight in her living room—her two small boys, sitting stock still on either side of her father while he read to us from a book that had absolutely no pictures in it.
"What in God's name are you reading to those two?" she demanded.
He held up the spine of the book so she could read it. It was Thucydides, Greek history, at 6 o'clock in the morning, to a four-year-old and a two-year-old. I went home a few years ago to visit my mother and thought that if Grandpa considered Thucydides so important, I should have another crack at him. I found the book—it's actually Thucydides/Plato from a boxed set—opened it long enough to read the first half-page and put it right back on the shelf. Even at 47, it was tough going.
For my grandfather, however, history was indispensable. When he was six, my great-grandparents took him to a Fourth of July celebration. At the end of the day, when the fireworks were exploding overhead, Mama Truman noticed that Grandpa was looking in the other direction. Shortly afterward, she took him to the eye doctor, who diagnosed "flat eyeballs," meaning Grandpa was very farsighted. The thick glasses he wore for the rest of his life slowed him down on the schoolyard, but they opened up a whole world to him at the tips of his fingers. And Mama Truman didn’t stick comic books in his fingers.
For his birthday one year, she gave him a four-volume history, each volume big enough to use as a doorstop, titled Great Men and Famous Women. I think he was nine. One of his high school teachers recalled that Grandpa and his best friend and later press secretary Charlie Ross tried to build a Roman wall across the schoolyard. Legend has it that by the time they finished high school, he and Charlie had read every single one of the 2,000 books in the Independence public library. (Secretary of State Dean Acheson put the number at 3,500, probably during an election year.) No wonder Grandpa thought that by age four I was behind in my Thucydides.
In addition to a love of history, I discovered that Grandpa also believed his grandchildren should develop stiff spines. In the dining room of our New York apartment, I had a hobbyhorse, the kind that sits on a stand and is attached by springs at the knees. You can ride those things forward and back, side to side, up and down. You can kill yourself on them, and I know that because that's what my mother was always telling me I was going to do if I didn’t slow down.
One morning, she wasn't around. Grandpa and I were alone in the dining room. I was riding like a madman, and he was back behind the New York Times, ignoring me completely. Mom always said he had total concentration when he was reading. At home in Independence, when the three of them retired to the study after dinner, Mom and Gammy, who loved a good argument, often started one. Grandpa, who just wanted peace and quiet, would read to the bottom of a page, mark the spot with a finger, and look up long enough to see if he was in immediate peril. If not, he read on. Otherwise, he moved to another room. No kindergartner on a hobbyhorse was going to distract him.
Mom's dire prediction came to pass. I tipped the horse over. I landed on the floor and the contraption landed on top of me. My grandmother, who was in the kitchen, heard the commotion and came running. When I saw her, I burst into tears. After all, it's good for a glass of milk and a cookie. She had almost reached me when a voice from across the room said, "Stop right there. Don't touch him."
She did. And I looked up to see who had ruined this for me. There was Grandpa, glaring at me over the top of his New York Times.
"You," he said. "Quit crying. You're not hurt."
No adult had ever spoken to me that way. I stopped immediately.
"Get up. Get that horse up. Get back on it and start riding it again."
I could not have moved faster. With Gammy's help, I picked up the horse and climbed back on. She went back to the kitchen, Grandpa went back behind the Times, and I rode very carefully for about 30 seconds before slipping off and getting the hell out of there. As it turns out, my grandfather was nicer to me than his own father had been to him. When Grandpa was six, he fell off a pony that John Truman was leading around the pasture on the family farm. John, who knew his way around a barnyard, was disgusted.
"Any boy who can't stay on a pony at a walk deserves to walk himself," he said and made Grandpa walk back to the house.
At least I was allowed to get back on.
But as I said, I had no idea where a love of history and a stiff spine had led my grandfather until I was in the first grade. And I found out the hard way. Someone walked up to me one day at school and asked, "Wasn't your grandfather President of the United States?" To which I brilliantly replied, "I don't know."
Mom used to love to tell people what happened that afternoon. She was reading in the living room when I came home, dropped my books at the door, marched over to her, and said:
"Mom, did you know . . ."
"Yes," she told me. "But just remember something. Any little boy's grandfather can be President of the United States. Don't let it go to your head."
It didn't. It went right over my head. I was six, after all. When my daughter Aimee was the same age, we were channel surfing one Saturday, trying to find something that would appeal to a six-year-old and a 36-year-old, when I stopped on a biography of Grandpa.
"Aimee," I said. "That man right there on the screen is Harry S. Truman, the 33rd President of the United States. He was your great-grandfather. What do you think of that?"
"Dad," she said without a flicker of interest. "You passed Nickelodeon. Go back."
(Aimee, by the way, is now a 21-year-old psychology major who still talks to me that way.)
It didn’t sink in for me what "President of the United States" meant until I was all of seven. Even then, it took seeing Lyndon Baines Johnson in his pajamas.
For years, I thought I was special, seeing President Johnson in his pajamas. It turns out, however, that he let almost everybody see him in his pajamas. A few years ago, I found a photo in the back of Smithsonian magazine. There's LBJ, propped up in bed, in his pajamas, with three guys in suits sitting at the foot of the bed, taking notes.
The occasion for me was the day after President Johnson’s January 1965 inauguration. My grandparents had been invited to the inauguration but had declined, asking instead if my mother could represent them—and maybe take the family. President Johnson said that would be just fine and arranged for us to stay in Blair House, across the street from the White House.
Many of you will recall that my grandparents and my mother lived in Blair House for nearly the entirety of Grandpa's second term. At the time, the White House was rotten and falling apart. Grandpa first noticed it when he was downstairs in the State Dining Room and could see the chandelier quivering. Eventually, the leg of my mother's piano went through the floor of her sitting room, and it was discovered that the second floor was staying up mostly out of habit. During a more than three-year renovation, crews tore the building down to its exterior walls and rebuilt it from the inside out, bringing equipment in through a tunnel. Early on in the process, Grandpa took a group of reporters and photographers on a tour, pointing out where steel rods had been run from the roof through the second floor to hold it up while preparations were under way to move the First Family.New York Times photographer George Tames recalled that Grandpa stopped outside his private bathroom where one of the rods had been run through the floor next to the toilet.
"You know, this thing scares me," he said. "One evening I'm going to be sitting in here and pull the plunger and wind up in the State Dining Room. And the Marine Band will play Hail to the Chief as I come through the ceiling."
The day after President Johnson's inauguration, we were scheduled to have breakfast with him and Lady Bird Johnson in the White House family quarters. It took us forever to get ready since we had to put on our best clothes, which for William and for me meant matching gray slacks, white shirts, blue blazers, and clip-on ties. After all, we were not only going to the White House, but we had a 10 a.m. train back to New York, and you always dressed for travel.
We arrived upstairs at the White House and, when the elevator door slid open, I remember being nonplussed—and a little put out—that the Johnsons apparently had not had to go through the same morning rigmarole. There stood the First Lady in a canary yellow dressing gown worn over a canary yellow nightgown and canary yellow slippers. Every hair was in place, and her makeup was perfect. It looked like she had been waiting for us outside the elevator all night long.
My mother was not nearly as chipper. In addition to riding herd on a seven- and five-year-old, she'd had perhaps as long a night as the Johnsons.
There were four inaugural balls that year. Mom was the hostess for the one at the Mayflower Hotel. Protocol dictated that upon arrival, the President was to dance first with the hostess, then with his wife, and then with all the other wives. Then he had to shake hands with all the men whose wives he'd been dancing with. Because it was so time-consuming, there was little room for dillydallying, which was why President Johnson was a bit concerned to find that there was no way to get my mother out of her VIP box onto the ballroom floor.
Many ballroom boxes are designed with doors leading directly onto the dance floor. The Mayflower's was not. To get out, you had to leave by the door at the back of the box and walk down a corridor to one of the main ballroom doors. Upon arrival at the ball that night, President Johnson found that there were hundreds of people between him and door my mother would have to use, so he wasted no time. He simply reached into the box and hauled her out.
For years, I was given the impression that this was a delicate operation with my mother simply floating over the box railing in the arms of the President of the United States. That was until I found photos tucked into the back of a family photo album. There are arms and legs all over the place and it looked like several Secret Service agents were involved.
It might have been even worse when it came time to put Mom back because by that time, President Johnson had handed her off to Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who was about half his size. Mr. Humphrey, however, wasted not an ounce of muscle on my mother. He simply called for a chair and held her hand while she stepped back by herself.
The next morning, after greeting us at the elevator, Mrs. Johnson led us down to the East Sitting Hall, where coffee was served and we waited for the President. He strolled out a few minutes later in his pajamas, bathrobe, and slippers, and endeared himself to us children by bypassing the adults and plunking down in front of us.
"How'd you boys like the tour of the White House the other day?" he asked. "Did you meet the dogs? I understand you went to the National Air Museum. How was that?"
In the middle of the conversation, he suddenly stood up and said, "I think I have something you boys will like."
With that, he left, returning a few minutes later, his hands full of everything he could find that had his name on it—stationery, envelopes, pens, pencils. It looked like he had cleaned out his desk. He started divvying up the loot. "One for you, one for you, two for you, two for you . . ." He'd almost finished when Lady Bird Johnson reached across the table and snatched something out of his hands.
"Lyndon, for God's sake," she said. "You can't give them those."
Apparently he’d tried to give us each a book of White House matches.
(Years later, after I gave a speech at the Johnson Library in Austin, Texas, Mrs. Johnson hosted a dinner for me on the library's top floor. As the meal began, she announced that she had a small token for me and asked me to hold out my hand, into which she dropped two books of matches from the LBJ Ranch.)
Back in 1965, my father looked at his watch and said, "Mr. President, we have to be going. We have a 10 o'clock train."
"Aw, Cliff, relax," the President said. "You have plenty of time. The train will wait."
"For you, yes," Dad said.
"Don't worry about it," the President said. "Have another cup of coffee."
Dad was actually in no hurry. He was managing editor of the New York Times, in a private audience with the President of the United States, who was in his pajamas. What could be better?
Finally, though, he glanced at his watch again and bolted to his feet. It was nearly 10 a.m. and we still had to get to Union Station, about 10 minutes away. We fairly sprinted down the hall, piled into the elevator, and dove into the limousine waiting outside. Even as the car shot through the White House gates, it was past 10 o'clock.
"Well, what are we going to do now?" Dad said.
This precipitated a tense discussion of options, including later trains and planes, the latter of which did not appeal to Mom who, like my grandmother, did not enjoy flying. In the fracas, no one noticed that the car wasn't aiming for the front of Union Station but heading around back. Before any of us knew what was happening, we had pulled onto a train platform, which I had not known was possible or even prudent. There on the platform was a porter with a baggage cart, a conductor holding a pocket watch and, behind them, a train. Dad did not ask whether or not it was the right train. He simply started slinging bags at the porter.
"Folks, relax," the conductor said. "You have plenty of time. The White House called."
President Johnson had stopped the train.
My father and I had two very different reactions to this. Dad's was something on the order of, "Well, why didn't he tell us he was going to do that and spare us all the worry?"
Mine was, "Wow. Grandpa could stop trains."
And this was exactly the sort of reaction my parents and grandparents had hoped to avoid by not telling me Grandpa had once run the country. My head grew three sizes, and I became insufferable for weeks.
Grandpa never had that problem with the presidency. He was in awe of the power, used it to the best of his ability, and refused to let it go to his head. It didn't define him, and he was happy to give it up when the time came. He always said that in leaving the White House, he was taking a step up, to U.S. citizen. Upon his arrival back in Kansas City in 1953, someone asked him what the first thing he planned to do in retirement was. Grandpa smiled and said, "Take the grips [suitcases] up to the attic."
He concentrated on writing his memoirs and building his presidential library, but there were some things he refused to do, humble U.S. citizen or not. In the spring of 1953, my grandmother got after him to mow the lawn, a chore he loathed.
"Look, pal," I like to imagine her saying. "You're not President of the United States anymore. Go mow the lawn."
"All right, all right," he said. "I'll get to it."
But he didn't. So she nagged him some more and he promised again that he'd do it and then didn't. So she nagged him some more and finally he rolled up his shirtsleeves one morning, got out the mower, and went at it. My grandmother looked out the window and almost died. It was Sunday morning. Everyone else in town was passing the house on their way to church and here was the ex-President of the United States, mowing the grass, not going to church, and waving and calling to everyone to make sure they knew it. Gammy ran outside and cut off the mower.
"Don't you ever do that again," she said.
"OK," Grandpa said.
They hired a yard man after that. In fact, one of the men they hired turned out to be a lay minister, so not only had Grandpa used the church to get out of yard work, he'd hired clergy to do it for him.
Grandpa was the last truly accessible ex-President. When he retired, the Secret Service protection vanished. It was not extended to ex-Presidents until after John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963. There is a five-foot steel fence around the house, put up by the Service in 1947, but from 1953 to 1964 it wasn't locked. Anyone who wanted to could walk up and knock on the door.
My favorite story is about the man whose car blew a tire on Delaware Street, right in front of the house. Not knowing where he was or whose house he was approaching, the man walked through the unlocked gate and up to the front door where he rang the bell. Grandpa answered in his shirtsleeves.
"Can I use your phone, please?" the man said. "I have a flat."
"Sure," Grandpa said. "Come on in."
The man called a local mechanic, who said it would take 20 minutes or so to get to him.
"I'll wait outside," he told Grandpa.
"Nonsense," Grandpa said. "Have a seat. Relax."
As far as we know, they spent the next 20 minutes chatting amiably in the living room. When the tow truck arrived, the man stood, shook Grandpa's hand, and thanked him for his hospitality.
"Not at all," Grandpa said, showing the man out. "It was nice talking to you."
The man got halfway down the front steps before he stopped and turned.
"I hope you won't take offense," he said. "But you look a lot like that son of a bitch Harry Truman."
"No offense at all," Grandpa said with wide grin. "I am that son of a bitch."
Clifton Truman Daniel is the oldest grandson of President Harry S. Truman and is currently director of public relations for Harry S Truman College, one of the seven City Colleges of Chicago. He is also honorary chairman of the board of the Harry S. Truman Library Institute. A frequent speaker and fundraiser, he is author of the 1995 book, Growing Up With My Grandfather: Memories of Harry S. Truman.