Claire McCaskill says it was Harry Truman’s character that set him apart, and that meant he was the right person to lead the country in turbulent and challenging times in the middle of the 20th century.

“For as long as I can remember, he was my role model. He was my gold standard,” the former U.S. senator from Missouri said Tuesday in accepting the annual Truman Good Neighbor Award at a luncheon in Kansas City.

“It was character,” she said. “That’s what made him great.”

McCaskill, a Democrat, served two terms in the Senate and was defeated last fall in a bid for a third term. She is the 13th senator – the fifth from Missouri – to receive the award, which has also gone to presidents, Supreme Court justices, journalists, historians and others.

The Truman Good Neighbor Foundation also honored Sgt. Terry L. Buckler with the Philip Pistilli Silver Veterans Medal. Buckler, a Missouri native, volunteered for special forces training and took part in a 1970 raid to free prisoners of war at the Son Tay prison camp in North Vietnam. His Silver Star citation says he showed “conscious disregard for his personal safety, extraordinary heroism against an armed hostile force, and extreme devotion to duty.”

Buckler mentioned the recent passing of Kansas City business leader and philanthropist Henry Bloch, who flew 32 missions over Germany in World War II and was given the Pistilli Award in 2017. (Pistilli was a World War II combat infantry veteran who founded the Good Neighbor Award Foundation.) Buckler spoke briefly and encouraged the hundreds in attendance to remember the “one thing we can all be, and that is a good neighbor.”

McCaskill touched on that theme as well, noting Truman’s lifelong devotion to his friends.

“The ultimate good neighbor is a friend,” she said.

She laid out several of Truman’s traits – and pointedly said some of them are lacking in the Oval Office today.

“Truth – that’s not complicated. He believed in saying the truth,” she said.

To that she added humility, hard work, courage – “especially courage to do the unpopular” – and a recognition that friendship is fundamental to life.

McCaskill pointed to the example of Truman ordering the racial desegregation of the military in July 1948, even as he was fighting to win an election that fall. It was the right thing to do but “something that was wildly unpopular in the country at that time,” she said.

To McCaskill, it comes back to humility, to Truman never forgetting where he came from.

“He just wanted,” she said, “to do his best and try to do the right thing.”