Harry Truman, From His Place of "Terrible Responsibility," Analyzes the Press

January 22, 1959

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Harry Truman, From His Place of "Terrible Responsibility," Analyzes the Press
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      Harry Truman once said, “A man with thin skin has no business being President.” It is an ironic statement, given that Truman often vented about negative newspaper coverage. He took special exception when criticisms were leveled against family or friends. In 1950, Truman threatened to beat up Paul Hume, music critic of the Washington Post, after Hume panned the singing performance of Truman’s daughter. Hume wrote that Margaret Truman “cannot sing very well – is flat a good deal of the time” and “cannot sing with anything approaching professional finish." Truman threatened Hume in a letter: “Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you'll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!”

      In this letter to Acheson, Truman remarks that he wanted to “punch the publisher” who wrote negatively of Dean Acheson and George Marshall, his friends and former secretaries of state. He chastises the “so called ‘free press’” and bemoans having to endure criticisms while administering the “terrible responsibility” of the presidency. Truman continued his feud with the Kansas City Star, saying, “Just told my suburban scandle [sic] sheet in K.C. what I thought of them.” Never one to shy away from a colorful comment, Truman also recalls telling Jim Rowley, who served on Truman’s Secret Service detail, “that any SOB who tried to shoot me would get the gun shoved up his behind and I'd pull the trigger.” Truman did face an assassination attempt in November 1950, when two Puerto Rican nationalists tried to break into the Blair House, where Truman was staying while the White House was being renovated. However, Truman did not manage to use the assassins’ guns in the manner discussed with Rowley.

      Truman was encouraged by a bit of positive newspaper coverage. He references a January 18 article by Cabell Phillips of the New York Times, and writes, “You see these damned newspapers and nutty columnists eventually have to admit the facts.” The article, “Dean Acheson, Ten Years Later,” was an appreciative account of Acheson’s life and accomplishments. Truman seems to have had a good relationship with Phillips, probably because he wrote kindly of Truman and his administration. In early May 1959, less than four months after this letter, Truman hosted Phillips at the Truman Library. The two men posed for a photo, and Phillips wrote, "With great respect to my favorite President, Cabell Phillips, N.Y. Times - 5-5-59." Phillips went on to write a very favorable account of Truman’s presidency, published in 1966, called, The Truman Presidency: The History of a Triumphant Succession

      A Soviet official, like so many columnists and academics, had also managed to get under Truman’s thin skin. Newspapers had taken a keen interest in tensions between Truman and Soviet First Deputy Premier Anastas I. Mikoyan, whom Truman calls “the Armenian Camel Thief.” (It is hard to say why Stalin gave him the disparaging nickname, but may derive from the fact that Mikoyan was minister of trade and craved meat and dairy products from Mongolia, and particularly from camels.) Mikoyan toured the United States from January 4-20 in an effort to facilitate better relations between the US and USSR. In particular, Mikoyan sought increased trade between the superpowers and offered Moscow’s perspective on the escalating situation in Berlin. But Truman took issue with Mikoyan’s visit and Soviet policies more generally. Truman wrote two syndicated articles, widely published in national newspapers, to communicate being “disturbed by the eagerness displayed by some of our leading industrialists and financiers to shower the visiting Soviet deputy prime minister with solicitous attention and social glamour resulting in pressure on the White House.” Near the end of his trip, Mikoyan fired back. At a National Press Club luncheon in Washington, he blamed the Truman administration for the Cold War and said, “It is a good thing he is not now in office.” The Kansas City Star reached out to Truman for comment, but Truman “just chuckled after hearing Mikoyan’s statements and said he had no comment.” 

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      Jan. 22, 1959

      Dear Dean:-  I've just read the New York Times Magazine of the 18th.  You see these damned newspapers and nutty columnists eventually have to admit the facts.  Don't know when I've had as much satisfaction as when I read that Catell Phillips article.

      It is most difficult for a person in a place of terrible responsibility to take some of the things a so called "free press" insists on publishing.  Sometimes I've been so worked up about what was published about you and General Marshall that I'd have been glad to punch the publisher.  Luckily I couldn't get to him. 

      Jim Rowley once told me, when I said to him that any SOB who tried to shoot 

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      me would get the gun shoved up his behind and I'd pull the trigger, "Mr. P. you can't get to him."  I always remembered that.  After about forty years of taking it and not taking it I've found that sometimes the facts come out and its [sic] best to give them a chance.  Hope you noticed that "no comment" was my answer to the Armenian Camel Thief.  That's what Stalin called him.

      You and General Marshall took it much better than I did and now you are both reaping the proper reward.  I'm still after them.  Just told my suburban scandle [sic] sheet in K.C. what I thought of them.  One thing there's nothing new it can say.  Tell Alice I'm still appreciating that grand dinner and the opportunity to talk to you.  Sincerely  HARRY