Body-slammed at Harry Truman’s

One of the things I like about Facebook is the almost magical ability to re-connect with old friends and make new acquaintances online. This happened the other day when I saw a post on a group site by a lady named Maryann. Turns out, she and I went to the same elementary school, Bristol, and the same high school, Van Horn, in Independence, Mo. Maryann and I were six years apart in school.

Maryann asked on Facebook if anyone had met Harry Truman.  He returned home to live in Independence after the end of his presidency. Every morning Harry roamed the city’s old town area by taking a 2-mile walk at the rapid military pace of 128 steps. Try that pace sometime—I did and was wheezing within minutes. On his daily walks, Harry enjoyed greeting children and their parents. It was an event that most kids remembered throughout life.

Harry and Bess Truman on the sidewalk in front of their home in Independence, Mo. 

I never had the experience. But Harry Truman—or, rather his wife Bess—did play a role in an incident where I was body-slammed by the nation’s top reporter. And, as serendipity would have it, I was relating my memory of the experience in a letter to another friend at about the same time that Maryann asked her Facebook question.

After I graduated from college more than four decades ago, I became a reporter for the Kansas City Star, one of the nation’s better newspapers. This was my first news job and I was eager and thrilled, with all the naiveté of a cub reporter. Because I grew up in Independence and knew the territory and many local folks, I was stationed in the Star’s Independence bureau.

By then, Harry had passed away. Bess was still living in the family home, which was built during the period from 1867 to 1885 and is now a national historic site. I rented a tiny apartment on the second floor of an older house directly across the street that not surprisingly was named Truman Road.

Since I had an excellent view of the Truman home, I became the Star’s unofficial “Bess Watcher”—that is, I was supposed to keep an eye on the place when I was at home to make sure an ambulance didn’t show up in the middle of the night or some other untoward event happened. The fear was that Bess would die without the Star’s knowledge and the newspaper would be scooped by other media. Back then, there was no worry about terrorist attacks; nonetheless, the Security Service kept agents on watch from a house on the street corner. I had a good view of their house, too.

This was in the early days of computers and Star reporters still used typewriters. Mine was an ancient Royal with part of the “e” missing and an “s” that often got stuck as I typed. The obituary for Bess was already written—typed out on paper—and safely tucked into the bottom right-hand drawer of the bureau chief’s desk. That was the first thing I learned on my first day on the job. Every “e” in the obit was a partial letter and now and then an “S” was missing, so I figured whoever had written the obit had probably used the Royal now assigned to me.

Sometimes dignitaries visited Bess. This rarely happened, however, when I was the Bess Watcher. She was in her 90s and suffering from the early stages of the congestive heart failure from which she died in 1982 at the age of 97.

But along came President Gerald Ford, recently named to replace Richard Nixon. Ford wanted all of the publicity he could gain since he was running for election in 1976. He figured a trip to see Bess would make him look good. His golden opportunity came May 10, 1976, when he was the keynote speaker at a public event to dedicate a statue of Truman in Independence.

Ford was accompanied by the national press corps, a pack of elite reporters who followed presidents around. Among them was Helen Thomas, a veteran White House United Press International reporter.

Helen Thomas

Thomas was considered “the” reporter of the American print news media, the brightest star among the stars of the national press corp. She began covering presidential news in 1960 by following around John F. Kennedy. She was the only female journalist to accompany Nixon on his 1972 landmark journey to China. She was the only reporter to have the honor of her own front-row seat in the White House Press Briefing Room.

Presidents all the way through Barack Obama started press conferences by calling on her so she could ask the first question. Her career spanned almost seven decades before 2013 when she reached life’s final “—30—“, the symbol once used by reporters to alert copy editors and typesetters that a story had reached its end.

Helen Thomas in her designated front-row seat in the White House Press Briefing Room, with President Obama and celebratory cupcakes on her 89th birthday in 2009.

Thomas was an icon, my hero. I learned about her in journalism school. I read her articles. I studied her. I imagined how she developed the questions she asked. I visualized how she took notes. I analyzed the way she wrote sentences and how she arranged facts and structured the flow of her articles. Yes, starry-eyed was I.

In the era of Gerald Ford, reporters were not looked upon by the Secret Service as potential assassins. They often could get close to the president—so close that a bold reporter could actually reach out and tweak the nose of the commander in chief. Most reporters restrained themselves, though, and asked questions from a respectful distance. Helen Thomas had a reputation for charging in as close as possible.

When Ford visited Bess, I was a healthy young guy, age 26, almost 6 foot tall, 200 pounds, solid, well-balanced, fairly nimble on my feet, a no-guffaw type of fellow when it came to my job.

While waiting for Ford’s arrival, dozens of local and national reporters were gaggled on the side street and along the sidewalk in front of the Truman home. It was a narrow street crowded with 700 to 800 people who had come to catch a glimpse of Ford and maybe Bess, too.

I had arrived early and managed to locate myself at a good spot near the sidewalk that Ford would walk along after exiting his limo. Nearby was Charlie Burke, a reporter for the competing local newspaper, the Independence Examiner.

I looked around at all of the reporters jammed together behind us. That’s when I saw her in the back of the crowd. Helen Thomas. There she was herself. She was tinier in stature than I expected. Her face was craggy and wrinkled almost like a peach pit. She looked like a granny who should be home knitting. Yet, it was her. It was Helen Thomas! … Please excuse my use of the exclamation point—I still recall my excitement of seeing her live.

Harry Truman in the most famous news photograph in the history of presidential politics.

After a long wait, as I jostled hard with other reporters to maintain my magnificent position, Ford finally arrived in his limo.

The president was approaching me—my questions were ready, my enthusiasm was great—when I was suddenly tossed aside like a bag of feathers. So was Charlie Burke.

Right over the top of us came the assailant—Helen Thomas. She wasn’t going to let anybody get between her and her prey, the President of the United States. The rest of the national reporters bulled along with her.

Charlie recounted the experience in the Examiner’s next issue: “They came charging like troops with fixed bayonets. Have you ever been hit with a camera? One of the veteran national press photographers swung his camera at me (or so it seemed) and missed —just grazed my shoulder. Another one jostled the tripod of a local press member and got warned to stay away. Then came gum-chewing, well-built Helen Thomas like a juggernaut, and whammo, into my ribs went the elbow.”

Charlie and I were both twirling this way and that way, and neither of us heard the question that Helen Thomas shot out to the president. But ask her question she did. She must have gotten a good answer because she looked slyly pleased, a hunter who just bagged the big one.

Ford was in and out of the Truman home in less than 30 minutes, and then back into his limo and gone. Helen Thomas disappeared, too, like a cartoon witch vanishing in a big, black poof!, back into the elusive fame of journalism, leaving behind a bruised and battered one-time hero worshipper.

So that’s my Harry Truman story…at least one of them. No walk was taken with him. But plenty of body-slamming happened because of him.

—30—

 

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