One only has to follow the events from the nation's capital in passing, Congressman Emanuel Cleaver said, to think that “If the country ever needed Harry Truman, it's now.”
Cleaver, the Kansas City Democrat and former mayor whose U.S. district includes Independence, received the Truman Good Neighbor Award Friday, calling the honor, “Hands down, the high-water mark of my political career.”
“I'm humbled, honored and at the same time, discombobulated as I review some of the previous recipients,” Cleaver said. “This is a treasure.”
The award is given annually near the time of Truman's May 8 birthday at the Imperial Ballroom of the Marriott-Muehlebach Hotel in downtown Kansas City, where Truman's friends held birthday parties for him in his post-presidency years. The first Good Neighbor Award, given to someone the Truman Foundation deems to hold many of Truman's characteristics, went to U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren in 1973. It has gone to Presidents Ford and Clinton, and to senators, authors, journalists and others.
Cleaver used Truman's executive order to desegregate the military – something not universally approved by other national leaders at the time – to contrast the rhetoric and policy pushed by some current leaders that many see as hostile to immigration and diversity.
“With Order 9981, Harry Truman changed the United States forever,” Cleaver said. “My uncle became a Tuskegee pilot, and his flight suit hangs in my closet today. It was an amazing act.
“Harry Truman was an amazing, amazing man.”
Truman, he said, believed that “everyone deserves an even break” and in a nation with “diversity as kaleidoscope effort.” When the U.S. does not show itself to be a welcoming country, “We are sending a message to the rest of the world that we are not “Truman-esque.”
Avoiding inclusion, he said, can create a monster, and “If we turn inward, the monster will turn on us.”
Cleaver said he maintains hope, though, that light wins over darkness and the country can find “benevolence and balance between support for the poor and for the military.”
The Congressman closed with the story of a co-pilot who, on a cross-country commuter flight in 1987, went to the back of the plane shortly after takeoff to check on a rattling sound. When Henry Dempsey reached the back, a door that hadn't been properly latched flew open and he appeared to be sucked out.
The remaining pilot, seeing the alert for an open door and thinking he'd lost his partner, radioed that he'd be landing soon and people should send a search party. When the plane landed, emergency crews realized Dempsey had been able to grasp some outside railing and clinged for 10 minutes. Workers had to pry the stunned Dempsey's fingers off the railing.
“What does that have to do with us?” Cleaver asked before answering himself. “We need to hang on in there.”
The Philip Pistilli Silver Veteran's Medal went to brothers William H. Dunn and the late John Ernest “Ernie” Dunn of J.E. Dunn Construction. Ernie was a Marine Corps aviator who flew 118 combat missions in the Pacific theater in World War II, while Bill few surveillance flights over the Gulf of Mexico for the Navy and was stationed in California when Truman decided to drop the atomic bombs.
Bill Dunn expressed his appreciation for law enforcement and fellow veterans and said he was fortunate to meet Truman many times
“This country is great when we work together,” he said.
MORE TRUMAN AWARDS: The Good Neighbor is among a handful of high-profile awards that bear Truman’s name. Former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano is to receive the Truman Public Service Award, presented by the city of Independence, on May 29 at the Truman Library. Cleaver was given that award in 2014.
Two weeks ago, the Truman Library Institute gave its Legacy of Leadership Award to author David McCullough, who won both the Public Service and Good Neighbor Awards in 1993 following the release of his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, “Truman.”