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tv   Harry Truman the Pendergast Political Machine  CSPAN  January 17, 2022 1:25pm-2:01pm EST

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until we do, so it would be barbaric to hold his tools from him. i think it would be right for a person of a certain standing, for instance, whether they could read or write in the first place, to be given pen and paper. perhaps they didn't understand what he was doing with that pen and paper and what the consequences of that would be. >> okay, great. well, that concludes our program for tonight. we have run out of time, but rick, thank you again for such a wonderful, fantastic program. with that said, i'll say good night to everyone and enjoy the rest of your evening. weekends on c-span2 are an intellectual feast. every saturday american history tv documents america's story. and on sundays, booktv brings you the latest in nonfiction books and authors. funding for c-span2 comes from these television companies and more, including charter
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communications. broadband is a force for empower.. that's why they've invested millions, improving technology, empowering opportunity in communities big and small. charter is connecting us. >> charter communications along with these television companies supports c-span2 as a public service. welcome to whistlestops. a new program series for the library institute. thank you for joining us today for our next trip down the tracks. i'm director of strategic initiatives and host for our journey at the truman library institute strategic initiatives. before i give that "all aboard," i would like to give a thank you
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to our whistlestops supporter. they give to the museum in a variety of impactful ways. for more information about the important work we do, please visit while you're there, you can listen to all the previous podcasts on the introduction page or the youtube channel. they will guide you through the introduction film, and his journey to the western part of broadway 1. he has returned from the war, married bess wallace and started in the war with jacobson. visitors can see the truman wedding invitation and explore more about the truman and jacobson has been --
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haberdashery. there is more that happened after the haberdashery closed, but i will leave that to truman's conductor. john herron was named director of the kansas city public library in 2020 following a dynamic 7-year tenure at the university of kansas city that saw him rise as a professor and interim dean of the college of arts and sciences. he is co-editor of "wide open town: kansas city in the pendergast era," and he doesn't know this, but he happens to be one of the stars of the program before the pandemic began. it was a wonderful evening that celebrated the 75th anniversary of truman becoming vice president, and of course, his friend tom pendergast.
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it's a pleasure to have you back with us today, john. >> thank you very much, and thank you, everyone, for joining us today. as cassie just mentioned, before coming to the library, i had a career at the university of missouri kansas city. my office was in schofield hall, the original campus building, where, from my window on the third floor, i could look down on a small courtyard and an expanding campus green to see the exact spot where, in the early summer of 1945, harry truman received an honorary degree from the university where he studied but did not graduate more than two decades earlier. it was a particularly heady time for truman. this trip to his hometown was squeezed between an appointment in san francisco where he signed the united nations charter and the momentous potsdam company in europe where he would serve
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joseph stalin. he wrote, when i come to jackson county, i cannot realize i am the president of the united states. i feel like one of your fellow citizens. i see the same faces, i try to talk to the same people. well, some of those same faces and same people included former military buddies, old business partners, and, of course, members of kansas city's famous pendergast political machine. the story of machine politics in this town is well known. but briefly, during the early 20th century, the city was controlled by the expanding democratic organization of jackson county, the official name for the machine. a dizzying array of business connections including beverage and construction contractors, provide a financial base from which the machine entered city, county and then state politics. the pendergasts, first the elder brother jim, then younger
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brother tom controlled the city manager's office, and from there, city council. they hand-picked the mayor as well as every other key office in city hall. it was old-fashioned saloon politics. although that term underestimates the political shrewdness of the family machine. jim was an alderman who, for nearly two decades, reached out to his fellow irish catholics, and then after his death in 1911, brother tom, also known as ox tom, took over, offering to feed the hungry, clothe the poor and provide thousands of jobs. that is the key to the success of any machine. the political boss was a source of greater patronage. they helped the pendergasts by voting early and voting often.
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such unique access allowed the city to pass a major bond issue, that among specific benefits, allowed them to control numerous city projects. their power improved by the decade, so that by the early 1930s, a pendergast sat in the governor's chair, the state museum was renamed uncle tom's cabin, and for the first time in more than five decades, kansas city was granted home rule, meaning control of the police force, something our current mayor wishes he probably had today. with the police controlled by city hall, pendergast expanded operations for the democrats in 1932, fdr's big landslide year, and took on an era of invincibility. well, the characteristics of the urban machine in kansas city
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would be familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of machines in new york or chicago. with income derived from vice operations, the gambling and prostitution and alcohol forming a kind of unholy trinity enjoyed delayed projects from construction projects. the pendergast machine was awash in cash. the phrase most often associated with this period in history is thanks to the machine, kansas city was a wide open town. you're looking at a street scene from downtown kansas city. this is walnut street right at the turn of the century. again, there is a level of activity in kansas city that belies its size. it was much more active of a machine than anybody could acknowledge. and this wide open town was, by almost every measure, what kansas city was. with its heartland location, its
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mild man inners, kansas city has been snag tiesedly the fly over our country. but the city jumped to a jazz beast. mob veettle. eventually it would end it in 1940. well, our interests this afternoon is not so much on the legacy of the pendergasts but on the connection to harry truman. and his first encounter to this family came during world war i. this sounds like an obvious statement, but the war would have a great influence on truman's life. the only one to see combat
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during world war, truman who was too old for the draft, signed up in 1719. he possessed leadership qualities he probably didn't know he had. but remember, in world war i, local men enlisted and then served together. army practice also allowed those home units to elect their own officers. truman was elected lieutenant for one of the six batteries that was mobilized for the war. each of those batteries was made up of recruits mostly from kansas city. in 1918 he was promoted again, captain this time, and he continued to meet people across kansas city including, in his words, becoming very well acquainted with young jim. next slide, cassie, please. what we're going to see is on
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your right, that's truman's outfit in camp donovan, oklahoma. on the left is harry truman and james pentergast. well, young jim was lieutenant james m. pentergast, boss tom's nephew. well, this war story includes a return home in 1919, a business partner with an old army friend who in 1921 was struggling. what you see here is truman's haberdashery. again, it was a business he started with an old army friend. and by 1921, this business was struggling. a visit that summer from jim
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pentergast and his father mike, also known as m.j., to truman's failing business inquiring about his interest whether a job in politics would lead to the next chapter of his life. again, he brought his father m.j. to see me in any store jacobson and i were operating. both of you who are familiar with downtown kansas city, it's on 12th street, just a couple blocks from where i now sit downtown. m.j. asked me if i would consider the nomination to the county court from the eastern district. in classic truman understatement, he replied, i would. so in the war, truman garnered a significant political base, including the men with whom he served who proved incredibly loyal for decades. there is a great photo in the truman library of his inaugural parade in 1949, surrounded by the surrounding -- the still living, excuse me, surviving members of his world war i
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battery. so he gains all these strong supporters who are his combat in arms in world war i, but also he gains the connection to the pentergast machine. that machine, that family supported him throughout his rise through political ranks. well, at the risk of oversimplification, in post-war kansas city, the pentergasts approached truman as part of a calculated political strategy. boss tom was, as i mentioned, irish and catholic. and even in a town that had large populations of both, that was still a little bit of a political liability. truman, by contrast, was baptist. a protestant in a deep sea of protestants. he could easily talk farming with farmers. he was a mason with all the
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fraternal connections included, he was an army hero, and not to be overlooked, he had a reputation for honesty and character. boss tom needed as much of both of those as he could possibly acquire. that the pentergasts approached truman and not the other way around is frequently mentioned by truman defenders. but this relationship was far more important and far more impactful than many assume. as truman admitted, quote, i went into business all enthusiastic. i lost all i had and all i could borrow. mike pentergast picked me up and put me in politics, and i have been lucky. later truman would speak of mike and admit, i loved him as i did my own daddy. well, the position that pentergast offered was as a judge in jackson county. you can see the political campaign poster there. it's not a judicial appointment
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but an administrative one. think of it as a kind of politically significant county commissioner. there were three judges on the court, one representing kansas city proper, one the eastern countryside, and a presiding judge. and together they controlled county moneys, hiring employees in the hundreds and awarding contracts in the millions. it is no wonder why the machine was interested in this position. truman is elected to office in 1923, 1924. he was not reelected, but he stayed in contact with the pentergasts, and in 1927, this time with boss tom's renewed endorsement, truman comes back, he's elected presiding judge. it's a position he holds until 1934. next slide, cassie. by all accounts, truman performed well in the position,
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and you can see he's added as a designation, one of these big projects he oversaw. he did well as a county judge and equally significant, despite the connection to the machine, he appeared removed from corruption. as presiding judge, truman once wrote, the boss wanted me to give a lot of crooked contractors the inside and i couldn't. later truman stated boss tom never asked him to do anything dishonest and said, quote, that's the honest to god truth, he concluded. i did my job the way i thought it should be done and he never interfered. well, let's be clear. that may be true or true enough, but that's not the same thing as saying truman did not have to support unethical deals or no-show work contracts or financial corruption. because he did.
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we know how he felt about that, because truman wrote about it a lot. and he was more than a little angry, but he also knew that this is how business was conducted in kansas city. at one point, truman wrote in a private diary, i wonder if i did right to put a lot of no account sons of bitches on the payroll and pay other sons of bitches money for supplies than they were worth. sons of bitches, we know what he was thinking. he used all kinds of gymnastics to justify such decisions, at one time asking himself in his private diaries, am i a fool or an ethical giant? am i just a crook looking to compromise to get the job done? looking for an answer from no one in particular, he said, you
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budge. i can't. truman came on this angst honestly, but he knew he needed that machine. how much the machine needed him was more of an open question. as he approached the end of his term on the county court, he was closing in on 50 prospects for his post-political career that looked uncertain at best. he made it known to boss tom that he was interested in the nomination for governor in 1932. pentergast selected another candidate. he thought about congress. here again, pentergast had other ideas. a number of city positions remained of interest to harry truman, especially the job of collector. pentergast gave that position to william kemper, still a well-known name here in kansas city. but without the boss' support, there was not a great deal more truman could do in politics. so the early 1930s were anxious
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years, to be sure, for harry and his political future. as it turned out, his trepidation, however sincere, was relatively short lived. in a 1933 letter to his wife bess, truman confided, i had a fine talk with t.j. yesterday, boss tom. and i am still on top. well, on top might have been a little bit of a stretch, because in truth, truman's political future remained at least a little cloudy. but it was in the early summer of 1934 where his old friend jim pentergast once again rescued him. he reached out to let him know that the boss was interested in truman for a position in the united states senate. now, truman was not the boss' first choice. he was not the second choice. nor was he the third choice.
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but perhaps it doesn't matter, because in it is end, the machine went to work. the primary for the senate election that year was a three-way race. and once again, in missouri politics in the 1930s, the primary for the democrats is what mattered. and in this three-way race, truman was in a very familiar position, last. he was in the rear. but the machine engineered an aggressive campaign, pulling truman through an exhausting tour of the state with an equally enthusiastic effort to get voters to the polls. in this election year, in jackson county, for example, truman received more than 120,000 votes. the runner-up, 1,200. 120,000 to 1,200. you can see where some of his electoral victories came from. only a few short months after he expressed worry that his
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political career was over, and rightly so, he was now the junior senator from the state of missouri. it must have been a wild ride. leaving little doubt of his loyalties, truman hung a picture of boss tom in the reception area of his senate office. cassie, i think we have a photograph of that as well. there we go, there's truman running for senator. and you can see on the right in the hat, smiling boss tom, and there you go. truman in his office. you can see photographs -- the photograph on the far left, some of those are hard to see. you can see the portraits of friends and supporters. the photograph on the far left in the middle is boss tom. well, senator truman's early experiences in d.c. were not great. he was timid when facing the washington bureaucracy. he was, after all, a country boy
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in the senate. and, of course, the pentergast cloud continued, especially as the power of the machine wavered. in the mid-1930s, boss tom's health began to decline just as his gambling debts mounted. tom had a reputation for being a teetotaler, a family man, all these qualities, but he was a crazy gambler. the estimate of the amount of money he lost in gambling varies on which scholar you look at, but in the millions. boss tom bet on horse racing in particular. well, an insurance scam in 1935, complete with bribes that were not reported as income, let's take number one, began the process of taking down the machine. in 1939, boss tom pleaded guilty to tax evasion and received a prison sentence.
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with pentergast in leavenworth, truman was at a low ebb in his political career. he spoke out on the investigation, calling it partisan, going so far as to disagree with the white house on the issue, but all that did was complicate his reputation. he stated publicly that tom pentergast was what he called political animus and stated that boss tom has been a friend to me when i needed it. i'm not one to desert a ship when it goes down. that's an admirable defense, to be sure, but his political opponents smelled blood. in washington he was known when one scholar wrote, the office boy, the bellhop, the one with callouses on his ears, the lackey, the rubber stamp. none of those are flattering. yet even his political
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benefactor would say never did his finger point to the direction of harry truman. maybe that would be a small consolation only, because now it's 1940. and without boss tom's support, and seemingly no white house support, truman was up for reelection. and reflecting the conventional wisdom, running again seemed like political suicide. truman was up against a well-financed, very popular, very dynamic candidate. his name was lloyd stark, governor of missouri, who at one point was a pro-pentergast politician himself. but in 1940, he is making no excuse for the machine, stating during one campaign stop to quote, the decent god-fearing, law-abiding citizens of missouri
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know truman for what he is, a fraudulent united states senator elected by ghost votes whose entire record in public office has been devoted to one purpose alone, and that is to who put h. at another campaign stop, stark called the machine a greedy repapious gang. equal part scathing and i guess we can call it creative. when they declared, quote, harry truman the erstwhile is back home appraising his chances of being re-elected to the senate. they are nil. he is a dead cock in the pit. things were rough for truman in 1940.
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well, despite this bleak forecast, spoiler alert, we know how the story actually turns out. it was an extremely close vote. truman would win by less than 8,000 votes out of more than 660,000 cast. there are a few reasons why. he was aided by the entrance of a third candidate who took votes away from stark and not him. his democratic friends in the senate rallied to his banner. he was always popular with other senators. there was a voting bloc in st. louis that proved remarkably strong for truman, thanks to some behind-the-scenes deals. there was the farm vote where truman always did well. but not to be overlooked. there was also the work of the pendergasts, especially jim and whatever remained of the machine. harry truman would carry jackson county by more than 20,000 votes, aided in large part by the votes of african americans
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who were generally pro-machine. that was a fraction of his win total from 1934. but that's still a 20,000 vote margin in a county where anyone or anything associated with the machine was supposed to be dead. i want to keep our focus on pendergast and not spend too much time on the rest of truman's biography. but, in brief, his second term was far different from his first. like much of the nation, his time was spent in wartime preparation including leading a committee, investigating fraud and waste in wartime contracts. by 1943, he was a leading liberal in the democratic party, a much sought-after speaker, perhaps unexpected since he was never a terrific warator, and chief proponent of the wilsonian world view, especially to a world now at war. and by 1944, he was also an
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increasingly popular choice for vice president. cassie, next slide, please. i think what we're going to see here -- yes, a cartoon describing the departing henry wallace. you can see him leaving the stage and wishing good luck to harry. well, in the campaign that year, truman was subject to heavy criticism, including time-worn attacks that he was nothing more than a provincial rube who overed everything to the corrupt pendergast machine. in the matter the presidential race is always a distant second, and his assumes office when fdr is re-elected once again. well, perhaps we can end our conversation is here with this final photo on the right. the date of this photo is
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january 29th, 1945. on the right we see now vice president harry truman and with him shaking hands is james pendergast. this is moments after boss tom's funeral. truman had been vice president for a hot minute, just over a week when he common deered an air force bomber and flew to kansas city to attend his funeral. his critics saw this as an outrage, underscored his status as a hack. honoring the memory of a convicted criminal was inappropriate behavior for a sitting vice president, many noted. a criticism that would linger against him for years. truman's response was very straightforward, almost similar to what happened during the initial boss tom trial. he was always my friend, and i
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have always been his. i never deserted him when he needed friends. many for whom he'd done much more than he ever did for me ran out on him when the going was tough. i didn't do that. you can see much of harry truman in that comment. the importance of commitment, of bond, of loyalty, of i think we can probably fair to say of midwestern values. well, the bigger question is why any of this matters. of the many things to discuss when thinking about the career of harry truman, why think about his connection to the pendergasts? well, without too much hyperbole or exaggeration, we can probably look to what happened in kansas city and see that, together, truman and the machine helped create the democratic party as we now know. certainly in the midwest and even to some degree nationally. that is, a liberal, tolerant,
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heavily urban, ethically diverse political party long before the new deal ever existed. kansas city's machine helped put together the basic elements of a political coalition that, when it appeared on the national stage, delivered the presidency to franklin roosevelt. practical and nonideological, it was socialism kansas city style, offering justice, cheap drinks, and public works for all regardless of class, creed, or color. especially if all you had to do was vote the straight democratic ticket. thank you so much, and thank you for your time this afternoon. >> thank you so much, john. if you want to learn more, be sure to pick up john's book "wide open town: kansas city in the pendergast era. the truman library institute hosted a discussion on harry
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truman who, while considered well read, did not graduate college. here's a portion of the conversation. now, a schoolmate remembers seeing truman take two or three books home every weekend saying, i guess by monday he'd read them all, which just might've been the case. truman claimed to have read the bible twice by age 12. by age 14, he said that he had read every volume, at least 2,000 books, 3 to 4,000 by some estimations in the independence library, which is seen here. in his later years in 1962, truman wrote to his friend and former secretary of state about it. and you can see what he wrote on the right-hand side, which i will read for you now. he said, believe it or not, i read them all, including the -- maybe i was a damn fool, but it served me well when my terrible trial came. not surprisingly, truman's classmates seen here in their
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senior class photo and truman is in the very back row the fourth from the left. truman's classmates consulted him when they had questions about history or religion. in a 1960s oral history archived at the truman library, one of truman's classmates called truman a great historian as he remembered a particular instance in which truman helped straighten out the boys during a lively conversation about the dalton gang. the dalton gang robbed banks in oklahoma and kansas between 1890 and 1892. the boys were debating which brother had started the group and how many were killed in the attempted double bank robbery in coffeyville, kansas, that was the gang's demise. of course, truman had the answers. henry recalled, they wanted to call him a sissy, but they didn't do it because they have a lot of respect for him. now, the boys might not have called him a sissy, but later in life truman would call himself a sissy when he recalled those
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years. looking back, truman said, reading history to me was far more than a romantic adventure. it was solid instruction and wise teaching, which i somehow felt i wanted and needed. i could see the history had some extremely valuable lessons to teach. i learned from it that a leader is a man who has the ability to get other people to do what they don't want to do and like it. to watch the rest of this program, visit type "harry truman" in the search box at the top of the page for a complete list of programs related to the 33rd president. ♪♪ ♪♪ weekends on c-span2 or an intellectual feast, every saturday, american history tv documents america's story. and on sundays book tv brings you the latest in nonfiction books and authors. funding for c-span2 comes from
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