The Man Hit on the Head with a Load of Hay
Harry S. Truman was a classic second banana. The U.S. senator from Missouri was considered the product of the powerful Tom Pendergast Missouri political machine. Pendergast chose him to run for the Senate only after three other men had turned it down. Truman, who took office as "the senator from Pendergast," had an average run as senator and was not taken seriously by Washington and particularly by President Roosevelt.
Then in 1944, Roosevelt asked Truman to be his vice presidential running mate. Truman had rarely spoken to Roosevelt and hardly knew him. The only reason Roosevelt selected him was that Truman was less liberal than the then vice president, Henry Wallace. Some in the party believed that Roosevelt might not survive a fourth term; Truman let it be known he was not interested in the vice presidency. Roosevelt devised a plan to pressure him to accept the position, and on July 19, the party bosses summoned Truman to a suite in the Blackstone Hotel to listen in on a phone call that, unbeknownst to the senator, they had rehearsed in advance with the president. During the conversation, Roosevelt asked the bosses whether Truman would accept the position. When they said no, Roosevelt angrily accused Truman of disrupting the unity of the Democratic Party in the middle of a war and then hung up. Feeling he had no choice, Truman reluctantly agreed to become Roosevelt's vice president.
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Truman had been vice president for eighty-two days when, on April 12, 1945, President Roosevelt died. Truman had rarely met with Roosevelt and was unaware of the Manhattan Project, which was about to test the first atomic bomb. Shortly after taking office, Truman told reporters, "Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don't know if you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me yesterday what happened, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me."
Truman was president from April 12, 1945, to January 20, 1953. He was elected on his own in 1949 over Thomas Dewey in a famous razor-thin election that nearly everyone had predicted Dewey would win. The country went to bed thinking Dewey had won but awoke to a Truman miracle comeback. Not much was expected of Truman; even his own people doubted his ability. But he racked up an impressive résumé as president: He made the decision to drop the first atomic bombs to end the war with Japan; he oversaw the Marshall Plan to rebuild war-torn Europe; he helped create the United Nations; and he stood strong against Soviet expansion, in part by implementing the Berlin Airlift. When most of the world would not, Truman recognized Israel and stood behind its formation as a nation in 1948.
Truman said of his decision to stand behind Israel: "Hitler had been murdering Jews right and left.... I saw and I dream about it even to this day. On that account, the Jews needed some place where they could go.... It was my attitude that the American government could not stand idly by while the victims of Hitler's madness were not allowed to build new lives."
Truman answered the call to become something else. The aftermath of World War II called on him to take courageous action and rescue West Berlin, the Allied sector of the city surrounded by the new Soviet powers, and to airlift in food and supplies for several months until the blockade ended. It called on him to help Israel become a nation. Truman became a much stronger man in his run for reelection. He integrated the armed forces against the wishes of most in Congress.
Truman was a Southern Baptist. (I am sure they are more inclined to claim him now than they were then.) He fired General MacArthur, which may have been his most courageous act after his decision to drop the atomic bomb. Of this decision, he said: "I fired him because he wouldn't respect the authority of the President." After firing MacArthur, Truman's approval ratings hit a new low and there were calls for his impeachment. MacArthur returned to the United States and gave a historic speech to Congress. Truman didn't even watch it; he met with the secretary of state and took a nap.
Truman was politically incorrect in an age of rampant political incorrectness. That is why he was respected then and brings a smile to all our faces now. Even though he was a bit off-color, he was truly a beloved character whose popularity has soared. This was no more evident than the dramatic success of Truman, David McCullough's masterful biography published in 1992.
What is to be learned about leadership from Truman? More specifically, what can the Christian leader learn from his example? Truman was transformed by the call to lead, and he led far above his natural ability. His capacity was greater than even he imagined. Isn't this true for the Christian leader as well?
There are far more Christian leaders in the secular realm than in the religious arena. If America has 350,000 churches and synagogues, and we assign an average of two clergy to each, it means we have fewer than 1 million clergy. If we throw in those who are ordained and lead an organization of some kind, the numbers might be somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million. This means that Christian leaders are more likely to be men and women who lead small businesses or organizations. And when they take the leadership role, like Truman, they may feel as if a load of hay has fallen on them. But the call to lead can transform them into something that otherwise would have been impossible to predict, as was the case for Truman and for Jesus. Jesus' transformation was to become something less, but for us, it is to become more—but we become more by first becoming less. And that sometimes requires a little push out the door.
"Harry Truman," American Experience, PBS, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/truman/
David McCullough, Truman (1992) 436.
Michael T. Benson, Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel (Westport, CT:
Praeger, 1997), 64.
"Historical Notes: Giving Them More Hell," Time, December 3, 1973, 42.
This number is difficult to quantify in America because there are so many quasi clergy, ordained for tax advantages by Christian organizations and churches. This does not include the varied religious sects that defy categorization.
Written by Bill Hull
Taken from The Christian Leader by Bill Hull. Copyright © 2016 by Robert W. Hull. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com.