Quick: Who was the first sitting U.S. president to travel overseas?
There’s a picture of him sitting on a steam shovel in Panama. You can imagine him saying, heck, I’m here, so let me just dig the darn canal myself. Bully.
Right. That’s Teddy Roosevelt, in 1906, at the site of a cause he championed, building the Panama Canal.
It’s one of the first pictures you see at a delightful exhibit, “The American President: Photographs from the Archives of the Associated Press,” at the Truman Library in Independence. It runs through Feb. 2 and is well worth the $8 admission to the library.
This is history we know, and yet, as with the library itself, little surprises jump up too. Yes, there is Bill Clinton playing the sax on the Arsenio Hall show, LBJ getting in trouble by pulling on the ears of one of his beagles, and George W. Bush declaring “Mission Accomplished.”
And there’s Harry Truman at the National Press Club, playing the piano, on top of which sits the young and sultry Lauren Bacall. That moment of 99 percent innocence was captured in a photograph that caused chatter and headlines.
But I liked the surprises. Sure, one well-known photo shows Richard Nixon waving goodbye on the day he resigned, but it’s next to one from three years earlier – sunnier days – of him reaching out to shake the hands of supporters. It’s the most joyful, full-of-life picture of Nixon I’ve ever seen.
That’s why the Truman Library, like the World War One Museum in Kansas City and any number of other first-rate museums, needs to be visited again and again. You can’t absorb the whole story in one day, and little insights await you.
I’m always drawn to the 594 tiny airplanes hanging from the ceiling in the Cold War part of the permanent exhibit on Truman’s presidency. That’s the number of planes, on average, flown into West Berlin every day for 15 months as the West stood up to Soviet intimidation – the Berlin airlift. It was risky, it was a daunting job, and it worked. Truman made that call, and he got it right.
I also love that typical-day-for-Truman exhibit next to the replica of the Oval Office. Here is the Man from Independence in 1952, the last year of his presidency: Up at 5:40 a.m., reading government reports and five newspapers – before breakfast – then a daylong string of substantive and ceremonial events, capped with an evening concert. It’s a window on the man, the presidency and Washington in a different era.
At the end of the Truman and Thomas Hart Benton exhibit that closed a few weeks ago, there was a particularly subtle but striking photo. Here is Truman, in the last year of his life, sitting by a window at home, reading a book – with a large of stack of books yet to go. That’s our man. Always reading and learning. Always more to do.
Page 2 of 2 - Surprises and insights, subtle and profound, await the curious visitor. Take an hour and learn something new.
Follow Jeff Fox on Twitter @FoxEJC or @Jeff_Fox.