- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 15, 2009


If recent history is any guide, few of those departing from the just-concluded 110th Congress and the soon-to-conclude administration will depart very far from the Mall, literally or figuratively. Ex-congressmen find it profitable to join Washington’s K Street or law office crowd, or accept high positions at leading organizations despite questionable qualifications beyond their “pull,” and presidents from Gerald Ford to Bill Clinton found fortune followed fame (although Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan were exceptions, the latter due in part to ill health).

It’s probably too much to expect that public officials will ever return to being what the Founding Fathers envisioned and George Washington exemplified - citizens who serve briefly, then return home to the lives they had before going off to Washington. But it would be nice if departing congressmen, and George W. Bush, keep the example of Harry S. Truman in mind when they “leave.”

Mr. Truman retired from the presidency in 1953, amid public dissatisfaction and revilement that few figures in American political history have ever matched (his popular image has undergone a tremendous reversal, and deservedly so, since then). He and his wife, Bess, drove home to Missouri by themselves, without Secret Service protection, to live in the only asset he ever owned, the house his wife inherited from her mother. Virtually his only income was a $112.56 per month Army pension. As president he had paid for his own travel and food, and on retiring he paid for his own office and staff and stamps in answering correspondence.

Despite his financial limitations, Mr. Truman declined offers of corporate positions. As he noted in his 1960 book, “Mr. Citizen,” “I turned them all down. I knew that they were not interested in hiring Harry Truman, the person, but what they wanted to hire was the former President of the United States. I could never lend myself to any transaction, however respectable, that would commercialize on the prestige and the dignity of the office of the Presidency.”

Congress, undoubtedly embarrassed by Mr. Truman’s situation, in 1958 passed the Former Presidents Act to provide former presidents with pensions and allowances to cover office and travel expenses. Congress in 1971 also was considering awarding him the Medal of Honor, but Mr. Truman quashed that by writing a letter, read in the House, noting that the Medal of Honor was for combat bravery and that changing the requirements would detract from the merit of the award, adding, “I do not consider that I have done anything which should be the reason of any award, Congressional or otherwise.” Of course, Mr. Truman is lionized today for the many tough decisions he made as president - as well as for his simple virtues and his plainspokenness.

In the last category is his observation, related in Merle Miller’s oral biography “Plain Speaking,” that “my choice early in life was either to be a piano player in a whorehouse or a politician. And to tell the truth, there’s hardly any difference.”

Well, it doesn’t need to be that way, whether for departing politicians, entering politicians, or others leaving or entering public service. Somewhere the idea of public service for its own sake must still exist, rather than seeing such public service as a stepping stone to personal gain. Let us hope that both the old and the new Congresses and administrations take Harry Truman’s example to heart, for the sake of good government and public acclaim.

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