THE BLOG

Sixty Years in Journalism: Morning Walks With an Ex-President

03/04/2015 02:07 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2015

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt did not make his medical records public. When he ran for a fourth term in November, 1944, only his cardiologist knew how unlikely it was that he would live through it. What the leaders of the Democratic Party knew was that they didn't want to take a chance that his third-term vice president, from his party's left wing, Henry Wallace, might inherit the Presidency. They engineered the choice of a replacement, the Senator from Missouri who chaired a committee investigating war profiteering, Harry S. Truman.

So it was a profound shock to America and the world when Roosevelt suddenly died and on April 12, 1945, Harry Truman took the oath of office as President of the United States. He was widely seen as a lightweight, following one of the historic greats. But events made Truman one of the decision-making shapers of history himself.

The Germans surrendered to the Allies. Truman approved dropping atomic bombs on two Japanese cities, and within days, Japan surrendered.

As Soviet forces deployed across Eastern Europe, Truman moved to fight the further spread of Communism. When the Russians blockaded West Berlin, Truman approved an around-the-clock airlift of supplies to its beleaguered people.

Truman ordered the desegregation of the Armed Forces, and called for additional civil rights legislation. When Truman was nominated for another term, South Carolina Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond ran against him.

The Truman administration coincided with my years in high school and college. To see the 1948 convention on television, I went downtown to the RCA Exhibit Hall in Rockefeller Center.

Truman whistle-stopped by train across the country, railing against the "do-nothing 80th Congress." Supporters at his election rallies shouted, "Give 'em hell, Harry," and Truman responded, "I just tell the truth about them and they think it's hell."

The polls forecast a victory by the Republican candidate, New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey, with such certainty that the Chicago Tribune headlined its first edition election night, "Dewey Defeats Truman."

Truman was delighted to hold up the newspaper as he won re-election. He gleefully imitated NBC commentator H.V. Kaltenborn as early returns showed Truman ahead and Kaltenborn told listeners the count would shift against him when the farm vote came in. Not so.

In his eventful second term, Truman signed the North Atlantic Treaty, and in 1950 ordered the U.S. military, with the backing of the United Nations, to support South Korean forces resisting an invasion from North Korea. Communist China entered the war to push the allies back to the original North-South Korea dividing line.

The popular commanding general of the allied forces that won the war in Europe, Dwight D. Eisenhower, won election to succeed Truman, who went back to his home town, Independence, Missouri, wrote his memoirs, and saw to the creation of his Presidential Library and Museum.

But the former President was frequently invited to events in New York and in Washington. and that's how, as a young reporter, I came to encounter him.

When Truman came to either city, he let it be known in which hotel he was staying, and he followed his customary habit of starting his day with a morning walk. A cluster of reporters would show up at the doorstep, Truman greeted us warmly, and off we went. If there was any security, you wouldn't know it.

As we briskly strolled, Truman would take questions on the news of the hour. What Congress was or wasn't doing. The latest turmoil in the Middle East. The day's propaganda statements from Moscow. Truman responded to everything. He was succinct and he was gracious. If a cameraman or two came along, they had to walk backward to focus on the ex-President, and he would warn them to be careful lest they back into a lamp post or a trash can.

Those encounters were a highlight -- memorable even as I went on to cover nominating conventions and inaugurations and presidential news conferences from Eisenhower to Obama. I wish I'd been able to keep copies of those recordings.

I met a mellow Harry Truman in his later years, when he personified the modest Everyman who could summon the leadership resources within himself we now call the right stuff.