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Chapter Nine A New President The story of how Harry Truman learned he was president of the United States has been told many times yet continues to hold its fascination. It is a story both of inevitability and of surprise. In the limousine on the way over to the White House, it occurred to him that the funeral of an old friend of Roosevelt, Bishop Julius W. Atwood, had taken place that day, and "maybe the President was in town ... and wanted to go over some matters with me before returning to Warm Springs." Nonetheless, Steve Early had said he should come straight to the front entrance of the White House and directly up to the family quarters on the second floor, not to the oval office in the west wing. Truman had taken off from Rayburn'S hideaway at a run-not stopping to look for his secret service escort, although he did go back to his office to pick up his hat. There he told Vaughan he was going to the White House and would call back in fifteen minutes. Vaughan joked that the vice president could not become president unless he, his assistant, was present. Without comment, the vice president went out to the north side where he found his driver and car and threw himself into the backseat; the limousine moved out into the traffic. When he arrived he was escorted to the elevator and thence to a sitting room, where the first lady was waiting together with Anna, Anna's husband, and Early. Mrs. Roosevelt rose to meet Harry Truman. She put her arm around his shoulder and said gently, "The President is dead." He asked Mrs. Roosevelt if there was anything he could do for her. She asked the new president if there was anything they could do for him.1 When he heard the news it was 5:30, and already he had been president for two hours. He went to the oval office and called home to Bess. Margaret answered and began to tease her father about not being there for dinner when she had a date that evening. In a tight voice he said, "Let me speak to your mother." Margaret passed over the phone in a huff. Moments later, Bess appeared in the doorway to her daughter's room, tears streaming down her face. Margaret got out of the party dress she planned to wear on the date and 177 178 / Harry S. Truman dressed for her father's swearing-in.2 In the course of the next hour or so Bess and Margaret were driven to the White House and visited briefly with Mrs. Roosevelt; Attorney General Francis Biddle called other members of the cabinet ; Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone was found and came to the president's office; members of the White House staff searched frantically for a Bible. By 7:00 the inaugural group had assembled in the cabinet room. The chief justice stood at the end of the long table, and Truman stood under the portrait of Woodrow Wilson. In his hand was a small, red-edged Bible someone found in a bookcase. The chief justice began, "I, Harry Shipp Truman ... " Truman raised his right hand and responded, "I, Harry S. Truman ... " When the oath was done, the chief justice added, "So help you God," a phrase not in the official oath. "So help me God," said the president, as he raised the Bible to his lips. The time on the clock beneath the portrait of one of Harry Truman 's great figures in American history was 7:09. 1 How would Truman compare with Roosevelt? Americans thinking about presidential responsibilities as Truman took on his new role wondered what would happen to the republic. If they could remember Truman's name, they wondered what they knew about him. As months and then years passed, they began to think they knew who Truman was, and a reputation gathered about him that for the most part was not very complimentary. Indeed, Truman's popularity with his fellow Americans stood high only until the end of World War II in Europe and Asia; after this it began to go down, and it stayed down until the end of his terms, with two notable ups. One was in 1948, when he fought for his political life and won (although less than half the eligible voters bothered to vote either for him or his opponent, Governor Dewey); the other was...


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