As Valentine’s and President’s Day approach, I’ve decided to combine the two holidays and tell a presidential love story. My favorite is that of Bess and Harry Truman although the Ronald Reagans and Barrack Obamas are close behind.
In the above quote Truman alludes to mankind’s age-old temptations. Speaking as one powerful man to others, he subtly reminded his fellow politicians that if they weren’t careful, the aphrodisiacs of money, power and women would bring them to ruin. In essence he was saying, “You need to make good choices.”
Unfortunately, our presidential history is replete with those who have not made good choices. John Adams was accused of importing a British mistress. Ulysses S. Grant was accused of corruption. Grover Cleveland was charged with draft dodging and fathering an illegitimate child whom he later sent to an orphanage after having the mother committed to an insane asylum. Garfield, Wilson, Harding, Franklin Roosevelt, Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were all accused of committing adultery and more.
The love story of Harry Truman and Bess Wallace has none of those sleazy overtones. It is classic and classy. He came from a small town, was minimally educated, relatively poor, struggled to get established, had no power base and yet became president. She was his first lady and he called her “The Boss.” At the end of their lives they were still saying, “I love you. I miss you. I need you.”
President Truman revealed that his courtship of Bess Wallace began when he was only 6 years old in Sunday school at the First Presbyterian Church. He said she was “a beautiful little girl with golden curls. I was smitten at once and still am.” This was 29 years before they married!
They came from opposite sides of the tracks. He was born into poverty on a farm in Lamar, Missouri in 1884. She was born in 1885 into a wealthy, prominent family in Independence. Although her father later took his own life, he had been mayor and her relatives always looked down on Harry. He was a poor country boy. A nerd. She was a popular athlete with many boyfriends.
Their courtship didn’t begin until in both were in their twenties. One day Harry was visiting some relatives who lived across the street from the Wallace family. His aunt asked him to return a cake plate that Bess’ mother had sent over. Bess answered Harry’s knock at the door and thus began a nine-year courtship. The couple didn’t hop in a car or go to the movies or anyplace alone. No, they visited in the sitting room or back porch and in the summer went on picnics or fishing trips with friends. And when they were apart, they wrote letters to each other.
Harry didn’t want to be a farmer, so he set out to make his way in the world of hard knocks. He was the only president of the modern era who didn’t have a college education and he worked in many fields, including as a banker and a judge. He served in France During WWI as a captain with the 129th Field Artillery. He and Bess became engaged. And they wrote letters.
He wrote more than 1300 letters to her during their 60-year courtship and marriage. It was thought that all of Bess’ letters to him had been burned. But in 1998 a new exhibition of letters from Bess to Harry opened at the Harry Truman Library and Museum. In the following letter, Bess evidently responds to a question about wedding guests.
"You may invite the entire 35th Division to our wedding if you want to. I guess it’s going to be yours as well as mine…it was splendid you got to shake hands with Pershing. Hold on to the money for the car. We’ll surely need one … but we can see about that later. Just get yourself home and we won’t worry about anything."
They were married June 28, 1919 in a little white Episcopal church at the age of 35 and 34 years old. The weather was so hot that day that the flowers wilted! Later, Harry had another business failure and Bess had several miscarriages. Margaret, their only child, completed their family.
Harry finally found his niche in politics and became known for his personal honesty. Eventually he was elected to the Senate and became vice president in 1944. He unexpectedly became president after Roosevelt’s sudden death in April 1945 and the rest, as they say, is history.
Over the years, wherever they were, the couple continued to write letters to each other. There was conversation about family life and probably political stuff, too. But always, there was the kind of heart-felt sharing that binds a couple together for life. One lonely night early in their marriage, Bess wrote this to Harry who was at Army Reserve summer camp:
"My dear, Lots and lots of love and please keep on loving me as hard as ever. You know I just feel as if a large part of me has been gone for the last ten days.
P.S. There isn’t anybody else on earth I’d stop to write at this time of day."
The Truman’s love story is like a breath of fresh air in a civilization that worships money, power and the pursuit of illicit love. When they left the presidency, Harry and Bess returned to Independence, Mo where they happily lived out their lives on his military pension in the house built by her grandparents. He walked to work. She played bridge. They traveled. And they were still crazy about each other.
Happy Valentine’s everyone! Now go write your sweetheart a love letter.