Truman’s statehouse legacy

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A recent visit my wife and I paid to Harry S Truman’s library and museum in Independence caused me to reminisce about Truman’s legacy in Missouri’s statehouse.

It’s a complicated story about how the bust of the state’s only U.S. President has been handled in the state Capitol. When I began covering the statehouse, Truman’s bust had a special position in Capitol building.

It was located on the main floor, overlooking Missouri’s great seal underneath the rotunda. That location made the bust one of the first things Capitol visitors saw when they entered the building.

But no longer!

Increasingly, the state administration allows private groups to use the rotunda for private ceremonies and rallies. To facilitate these private events, a gray wall-board panel was installed that blocked the rotunda exit where Truman’s bust was located.

In front of the panel was a stage for speakers. So rather than Capitol visitors, Truman faced a wall just a few inches from his face.

Initially, that wall board obscuring Turman’s bust was temporary for rotunda events. In recent years, it’s become nearly permanent.

Finally, Truman’s bust was moved from behind the wall, but to a less prominent position. It’s now on a side wall of the entrance through which visitors pass. But it’s a far less prominent position located behind a barricade for screening visitors.

The move may not have been the first insult to our state’s only U.S. president. In the House Lounge are Thomas Hart Benton’s murals of Missouri’s history.

One scene is of Kansas City area’s political boss and subsequent convicted felon Tom Pendergast presiding over a meeting as if he was a political king. In the audience of that scene sits a person who sure looks like Truman.

A Capitol historian has told me that’s actually not Truman, but another Kansas City politician. But an elderly guide at the Truman museum in Independence told me Truman’s portrayal in the Capitol was the cause of Truman’s initial resistance to having Benton paint a mural for the entrance to Truman’s museum founded about two decades after the Capitol murals were painted.

It says something about Truman, I think, that he ultimately agreed to have Benton paint his library’s mural that portrays the early exploration of the Midwest and interaction with native Americans. The guide told me that part of the reason Truman agreed was the friendship the two men developed enjoying Truman’s favorite drink, bourbon.

That recollection reminded me of my last night as a reporter in the U.S. Capitol. Visiting the Capitol with my wife that night, I ran into the historic House doorkeeper, “Fishbait” Miller. His real name was William Miller, but everyone knew him as Fishbait.

Fishbait took us to the House speaker’s hideaway room where he said Truman and a small group of senators were enjoying his favorite drink when he got the message that Franklin Roosevelt had died making Truman our country’s next president.

From my tour of Truman’s library, I had another thought about his lost legacy for Missouri. From the museum, I learned that Truman held a news conference with reporters an average of every nine days.

I was not surprised. One of my journalism mentors who covered Truman as a photographer, the late Jack Hackethorn, described with joy Truman’s candor and access.

But that legacy of access and candor by the only president from Missouri has faded in recent Missouri governors and state administrations. I miss greeting Harry Truman’s bust every day I came into the Capitol.

I also miss governors and state administrators of years past who followed the adage of Truman’s Oval Office House desk sign that “the Buck Stops here.”

For recent state administrations, the sign could be “the Buck Stops with my spokespersons.”

(Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of Missouri Digital News and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes).

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