Harry Truman had many qualities, including a good sense of humor, too seldom seen among politicians today, says former U.S. Sen. Alan K. Simpson.
Simpson, who on Tuesday was given the 2017 Truman Good Neighbor Award, also stressed Truman’s qualities of loyalty and leadership. The 33rd president was loyal to family, to the country, to the presidency and to his own code, he said.
“Leadership is tough to describe, but you know it when you see it, and that was him,” Simpson added.
Simpson, a Republican from Wyoming, served three terms in the Senate, from 1979 to 1997.
Karl Zobrist, president of the Truman Good Neighbor Award Foundation, suggested that Truman and Simpson shared some qualities. One was a willingness to work in a bipartisan manner to pass major legislation. Another is a salty sense of humor.
Simpson didn’t disagree, said he always looked up to Truman and agreed with his “The Buck Stops Here” approach to politics.
“He knew that politics was a contact sport,” Simpson said.
The senator did offer several one-liners – “I did not graduate cum laude. I graduated thank the laude” – but overall took a more philosophical tone. For one thing, he said, successful politicians have to have a good sense of humor. Truman had that, he said – “not the humor that you see today, where you make fun of someone.” Overly serious people, he added, are easy to fool.
He compared Truman, who took office in the turbulent times at the end of World War II, with Abraham Lincoln, who took office in the darkest days of the country’s history.
“They were joked about. They were made fun of. … They were ridiculed,” he said.
“They handled it with courage and an uncommon degree of common sense,” he added.
The truth is, he said, there’s no right answer in politics. Instead, it’s a series of compromises arising from politicians’ “appetite and ambition” in competition with truth and knowledge.
There’s also a religious aspect, he said – knowing where to turn when you have nowhere to turn.
“That is a truth. It is not preaching,” he said.
Leaders have to believe in certain things, he said – people, the truth, ethics and themselves. And they have to take risks, as Truman did, he said.
He reflected a couple of times on his father, who was the governor of Wyoming. He watched his father get voted out of office after commuting the death sentence of a murderer.
“So that was the end of it for him, but I said, you know, that takes guts,” Simpson said, drawing a comparison to Truman.
“And my dad taught me, if you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, then do,” he said.
He said Truman remains an example.
“What would Harry do?” he said. “So I share with you this day: He was my hero.”
Simpson said he was daunted at the list of previous Good Neighbor Award winners -- Presidents Ford and Clinton, a vice president, two Supreme Court justices, 12 congressmen and senators, six generals and admirals and an astronaut as well as historians, journalists and others.
“Actually, I felt like a jackass at the Kentucky Derby,” he joked. “I knew I couldn’t win, but the association would be helpful.”
Honors for service
The luncheon grew out of an annual event for the president’s birthday, started by Kansas City friends when he left office in 1953.
The foundation also annually awards the Philip Pistilli Silver Veteran’s Medal. Pistilli, a combat veteran of World War II, was the foundation’s longtime president.
This year’s medal went to Henry W. Bloch, co-founder of H&R Block.
Bloch, a native of Kansas City, went into the U.S. Army Air Corps after Pearl Harbor. He was navigator on a B-17. On his first mission – to Berlin – the bomber lost three of its four engines. He flew 32 combat missions overall.
“It was dangerous,” he said. “We were shot up all the time. We were very lucky.”
“I always say I’d rather be lucky than smart or good,” he added, drawing laughter.
After the war, he and his brother Richard founded H&R Block, and he’s been involved in civic and philanthropic affairs for decades. He said he didn’t think he deserved the award and attributed much to “plain luck.”
“I feel very fortunate,” he said. “I wouldn’t have done anything different.”
Also at Tuesday’s luncheon and receiving a standing ovation was Army Col. Roger H.C. Donlon (ret.), the first person to be awarded the Medal of Honor – the nation’s highest military honor – in the Vietnam War. He is a past winner of the Pistilli Award.
On July 6, 1964, Capt. Donlon was commanding a Special Forces unit at a camp in South Vietnam that came under heavy attack. This was the Battle of Nam Dong.
Donlon directed a successful defense, though wounded four times, and he repeatedly risked his own life. His forces were outnumbered about three to one, but they held the camp. At one point, Donlon took out a three-man demolition team at the camp’s main gate and prevented a breach.
His Medal of Honor cites his “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his own life above and beyond the call of duty.”
In addition to the annual luncheon, the foundation awards scholarships to college students majoring in international relations and public service. It also invites to foreign students at area colleges and universities. Twenty-five countries were represented on Tuesday’s event.