Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Truman Soap Co: Not with this Ex-President

In this post about the Truman Committee I had mentioned a family connection to Harry Truman; he was the nephew of ex-Confederate guerrilla James J. Chiles, on my father's side.

While in DC last week I was visiting at 4701 Connecticut Ave. and in the second-floor hallway was surprised to see a plaque on a door noting that the apartment (now a condo) had been the Washington home of Truman as a US Senator and for 82 days as vice president, up until FDR's death in April 1945.

The units are roomy and well laid out, with many nice architectural details.

After Truman left the White House in 1953, he couldn't have returned to this apartment. The reason is that he couldn't have afforded it, having no income other than a $112 monthly Army pension. At the time there were no pensions for ex-presidents, and no expense account for office space or staff or a library or anything else. It must have been sobering for him to contemplate James Monroe, who had to move in with his daughter to get by, and Thomas Jefferson, who died in debt.

Still, unlike all recent ex-presidents -- some more than others -- Truman declined to trade honor for cash. He turned down lucrative offers including a ceremonial position with a Florida land company for $100,000 per year, a free car, and cash for selling his name for use by the "Harry S. Truman Soap Company." Evidence of the soap offer can be seen at the Truman Library.

Said Truman: "I could never lend myself to any transaction, however respectable, that would commercialize on the prestige and dignity of the office of the presidency."

Truman's fortunes turned after Life Magazine advanced him money for an autobiography, and later he received a pension of $25,000 a year -- the first president to do so under a new law. That was plenty for where he lived, the family home in Independence, Mo.

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