President Harry S Truman and Governor Harold E. Stassen were divided by party lines, but they had more in common than either would have admitted.
Both ordered the racial integration of armed forces under their command, in Truman’s case all branches of the service in 1948 and in Stassen’s case the Minnesota National Guard when he was governor of the state 1939-1943.
Both ran for president of the United States in 1948. Truman was successful and Stassen lost the Republican nomination to Thomas E. Dewey.
And both made a major impact on Baptist history. In 1984 I wrote an editorial about Truman’s centennial in The American Baptist magazine.
(Truman) was never a candidate for a cross and crown pin for perfect attendance, and if he couldn’t bring himself to darken the door of his church every week, his reasoning was familiar enough: “Lot of hypocrites in church,” he observed.
It has also been rumored that he argued with his pastors from time to time. There is a legend that when he announced his intention to appoint General Mark Clark as U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, he showed up for worship at Washington’s First Baptist Church and heard his pastor, Edward H. Pruden, denounce his move as unconstitutional. Mr. Truman never worshiped at First Baptist again. (Like all rumors, this one has more than one interpretation. Dr. Pruden said Mr. Truman had told him that he was not avoiding church because of the sermon; the president had been a recent target of an assassination attempt by Puerto Rican nationalists and he had been advised to stay away from church for security reasons.)
Harry Truman had more than one difference of opinion with his fellow Baptists. His frequent habit of downing a “slight libation” of hard liquor and his love of cards (poker was his game) would have placed him at odds with many (but by no means all) Baptists. And although he was fond of preaching from the Bible, and did so on several occasions, his tendency to “give ‘em hell” did not always have a theological context. His plainspoken, often profane language bothered some of his friends as well as his critics. Mr. Truman once telephoned fellow Baptist Brooks Hays to express his condolences on Hays’s defeat in his bid for reelection to Congress. “Mr. President you’ve taken a lot of heat, I guess I can too,” Hays remembered saying. “No, Brooks, it’s different with me,” Truman replied, “I can cuss, and you can’t.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, Harold Stassen and his wife Esther lived across the street from the American Baptist offices in King of Prussia, Pa. He had a law office in Philadelphia, which I visited in 1969 along with two other students from Eastern Baptist College. We had asked Stassen for an interview for Eastern’s student newspaper, The Spotlight, and he was a gracious host.
We sat in a board room and listened with awe to his reminiscences about people he had known, ranging from 1940 GOP presidential nominee Wendell Wilkie to Joseph Stalin (“Stalin had very little understanding of democracy,” Stassen said with Minnesota understatement). We talked for over an hour and it never occurred to us students how much that time was worth to an international lawyer.
On the way out, I noticed a crude oil painting of Abraham Lincoln on the wall of his office. Thinking it might have been painted by one of his grandchildren, I asked about it. “Yes, Ike painted that for me,” Stassen said. I refrained from further comment.
I encountered Stassen several times during my tenure on the American Baptist communication staff. He would stop by the offices for various meetings. The older staff felt comfortable calling him “Harold,” but I always called him Governor.
Occasionally he would call my office. This was when Johnny Carson and other talk show hosts were renewing Stassen’s national fame by joking about his chronic pursuit of the presidency, so I had to warn the receptionist that if someone called saying he was Harold Stassen, it was probably really Harold Stassen.
It was true that Stassen ran for president every four years when he had no chance of winning the Republican nomination, and a lot of people thought that was amusing. I once asked his son Glen, a prominent Baptist theologian, about his father’s ambitions. “Look, he’s an international lawyer,” Glen said. “I imagine he has clients who are impressed by the fact he’s a presidential candidate. And at least he’s not chasing after women.”*
In the fall of 1972, Harry Truman lay dying in a hospital in Kansas City, Mo. I knew American Baptists would be issuing a statement when Truman died, and it occurred to me that there was no better person to do that than Harold Stassen. If history had unraveled differently, Stassen and Truman might have opposed each other in the 1948 presidential campaign, and I knew they had a lot in common as Baptist politicians. In early December when medical bulletins revealed the gravity of Truman’s condition, I called Stassen and asked if he’d be willing to write a statement.
“Sure,” he said. “I’ll write something and bring it by.”
Later that day Stassen placed a sheet of yellow legal paper with a scribbled note on the receptionist’s desk at the American Baptist offices. I typed it twice, once as a separate statement to read to news outlets when Truman died, and once as a part of a general release that would be mailed by American Baptist News Service. As Truman’s condition continued to deteriorate, I waited.
And waited. Days passed and Truman clung to life. When the holidays approached I took the releases home with me. And waited.
Christmas came and went and still Truman lived. Or so I thought.
I was awakened by a phone call on December 26. It was Stassen.
“Phil,” he shouted in his rumbling baritone. “Where’s the darn release?”
I quickly turned on the television and saw that Harry Truman had died during the night. I told the governor it was “on its way,” and I started calling the Associated Press and other news outlets to read Stassen’s statement to them. (That’s the way it was done in dark ages before email). The statement became part of the evening news cycle and I breathed a sigh of relief.
Over his long life American Baptists frequently honored Harold Stassen. He received the Edwin T. Dahlberg Peace Award in 1972, an honor named for another great Baptist. Stassen gratefully accepted with an eloquent speech, which he had scribbled in pencil on a sheet of a yellow legal pad. When he finished, I discretely stuffed the speech in my brief case to preserve as a historic document. For years I kept the speech in a special file in the communications offices but lost track of it when I left the Baptists in 1991. I hope it still exists somewhere.
When Stassen died in 2001 at the age of 93, several news outlets observed that his protracted pursuit of the presidency had caused many to underestimate him. He had also been a signatory of the United Nations charter, president of the University of Pennsylvania, and president of the American Baptist Churches in the USA. He received the Legion of Merit for his Navy service in World War II, and he served President Dwight D. Eisenhower in cabinet level appointments.
So far as I can tell, he only made two glaring errors in his life.
One was in 1948 when he confronted Thomas E. Dewey in a televised debate over whether the Communist party should be outlawed in the United States. Stassen – perhaps fawning to prevailing public opinion – said the party should be outlawed. Dewey said that, as despicable as the Communists may be, the Constitution forbade that kind of flagrant interference in democracy. Stassen never recovered in the polls from that philosophical misstep. Had he handled it better, he might have been president of the United States.
The other error was a god-awful toupee that he plopped on his head late in life. It was the most unrealistic looking toupee I have ever seen and it looked like a comatose possum.
“I have a very high forehead,” Stassen explained, and he didn’t like the way his bald pate looked on television.
The problem is, there were tens of thousands of news photographs – including a cover of TIME magazine – that showed the high forehead intact. Everyone knew that and, in my opinion, the toupee made him look vain and clownish, I think it contributed to his undeserved image as a comical figure.
But I have long since made my peace with the reality that it was a national misfortune that Harold Stassen was never president of the United States.
And I have also tried to accept the excuse of Stassen’s friend and fellow Baptist Brooks Hays, who also bought an ugly toupee in his later years:
“What God has not wrought,” Brooks explained, “I went out and bought.”
- In past years, whenever I had wrote about Harold Stassen, Glen would respond with positive comments or critical suggestions. Glen died in 2014, and I will miss not hearing from him.