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Examiner
  • Michael Devine: Truman remembered his friends

  • Harry Truman was in big trouble in 1922.



    He was living with his wife in his mother-in-law’s home on Delaware Street in Independence. He was hoping to start a family. However, the haberdashery business he had started several years earlier with his World War I Army buddy, Eddie Jacobson, was going bankrupt. Truman, now nearly 40 years old, needed a job in the worst way.

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  • Harry Truman was in big trouble in 1922.
    He was living with his wife in his mother-in-law’s home on Delaware Street in Independence. He was hoping to start a family. However, the haberdashery business he had started several years earlier with his World War I Army buddy, Eddie Jacobson, was going bankrupt. Truman, now nearly 40 years old, needed a job in the worst way.
    To the rescue came young Jim Pendergast, another World War I Army contact and the nephew of Tom Pendergast, the mastermind of the powerful Democratic political machine that governed Kansas City. With Jim’s help, Harry Truman formed an alliance with “Boss” Tom Pendergast that lasted for two decades and allowed Harry Truman to rise from Jackson County politics to a seat in the United States Senate – and ultimately the White House.
    With support from the Pendergast machine, Truman was elected judge for Eastern Jackson County in 1922. In his position, he served on a three-member board that supervised Jackson County government. The judges had significant influence on who got county jobs and what firms were awarded county contracts. In 1926, Truman was elected presiding judge (in effect, county executive), and he served until 1934.
    During this time, Jackson County witnessed a remarkable period of growth and expansion that included new roadways, a magnificent courthouse in downtown Kansas City and other public works projects. All of these lessened the impact of the Great Depression on the residents of Jackson County. Meanwhile, Truman loyally supported the Pendergast machine and, whenever possible, made sure that solid Democrats found their way into county offices.
    In 1934 the Pendergast machine backed Harry Truman’s bid to become a United States senator. Pendergast supplied money and muscle in a bitter primary election fraught with irregularities. Only with the machine’s backing did Truman emerge from the primary to smash his Republican opponent in the general election.
    Derided as “the senator from Pendergast,” Truman had no easy time distancing himself from the Kansas City political machine. In fact, Truman maintained close personal and political ties with both “Boss Tom” and “Young Jim,” knowing he would need their support in his 1940 re-election campaign.
    A new documentary film, “Tom and Harry,” explores the complex relationship between Harry Truman and “Boss Tom.” Area film maker Terrance O’Malley examines the history of the Pendergast machine in a comprehensive documentary that runs an hour and 45 minutes. Serving as producer, director and narrator, O’Malley provides viewers with a number of remarkable photographs never before seen.
    O’Malley’s film is an extraordinarily detailed account of the inner workings of Kansas City politics in the 1920s and 1930s, with none of the ugliness glazed over. According to O’Malley, Truman “maintained personal integrity in the caldron of corruption that was Kansas City.”
    Page 2 of 2 - O’Malley’s story begins with “Big Jim” Pendergast, the founder of the machine who built his empire on the winnings of a race horse named Climax. Jim, the older brother of Tom, invested his winnings in a saloon that became the center of Democratic Party politics in Kansas City in the late 19th century.
    Ironically, it was betting on the ponies that brought down the Pendergast machine. Tom’s addiction to horse racing led to huge losses, which he tried to cover by extracting large kickbacks from contractors and by hiding secret payoffs. This led to a conviction for income-tax evasion in 1940 and a prison sentence at Leavenworth of one year and a day. When released from jail, Tom Pendergast returned to Kansas City and spent his final years in disgrace.
    When Tom Pendergast died in early 1945, his loyal protégé Harry Truman, now vice president of the United States, returned to Missouri for the funeral.
    Michael Devine is director of the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence.
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