Bess Wallace Truman once said she believed a woman's place in public was “to sit beside her husband, be silent, and be sure her hat is on straight.”
This offhand remark did not conform to the reality of Mrs. Truman's life as the wife of the 33rd President of the United States. Indeed, throughout her marriage to Harry S. Truman, Bess was constantly involved in her husband's political career. She served as a behind the scenes adviser, sounding board, and critic. At the same time, she remained a very private person and true to her personal values.
According to her daughter Margaret, Bess “underwent a terrific inner struggle to overcome her deep aversion to becoming First Lady.” Without complaint, she dutifully undertook all her social responsibilities and performed all of her official duties. However, she felt no need to be as public a First Lady as her immediate predecessor, Eleanor Roosevelt, had been.
Also, she declined taking on a grand new cause like several of her predecessors and all recent First Ladies. For example, First Lady Lou Hoover helped found the Girl Scouts of America, and Nancy Reagan championed “just say no” to drugs. Laura Bush promoted literacy programs and Michelle Obama has served as an outspoken advocate for the elimination of childhood obesity through improved diet and increased exercise.
When Harry S. Truman suddenly became President of the United States in April 1945, Bess saw no need to take on a new cause because she already had her own interests. For many years she had been active in various public service enterprises in her hometown of Independence, Missouri.
She was involved with the Pioneer Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and promoted that organization's efforts to advance civic values, and she helped organize the Independence Junior Service League, which supported a variety of good works in her home town. Furthermore, Bess was deeply involved in the Trinity Episcopal Church. She continued to embrace all of these activities as First Lady and in the years following her husband's presidency.
Bess continued to devote much of her attention to family matters. Her husband and daughter Margaret were the center of her life, and this did not change when she became First Lady. Her aging mother, Madge Wallace, also required constant care and attention from Bess. She spent a good deal of her time at home in Independence, and Bess appeared unconcerned about criticism (some from the president himself) that she remained in Independence too often and for too long.
In spite of her long absences from Washington, D.C., Bess remained a constant source of practical advice and common sense for the President. Bess had served in this capacity from the time Harry Truman launched his first campaign for the position of judge for Eastern Jackson County in 1922. She continued her role during her husband's Senate career, working on his various campaigns and even serving for a time as a paid employee on his Senate staff (a practice that was fairly common in the 1930s and ’40s, but one which drew public criticism when Mr. Truman became President).
One of the happiest moments in Bess's life came in the evening of March 29, 1952, at the annual Jefferson-Jackson day dinner. While the President spoke before hundreds of Democratic party loyalists, Bess, listening attentively, heard him say, “I shall not be a candidate for reelection.” Bess knew that soon they would be going back home to Independence! She would once finally be the private person she always wanted to be.
Michael J. Devine is director of the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence.