At a time when our nation is burdened by a leader who has been heard to say “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” — longing for the assistance of one of the most morally bankrupt characters in American history — what we ought to be saying is, “Where’s our Harry Truman?”
As a United States senator from Missouri, Truman spent a lot of his time looking for — and finding — graft and corruption in government contracts. And there wasn’t anyone more qualified to know it when he saw it.
In 1922, Truman was a failed businessman and not-so-successful farmer who had caught the eye of the Pendergast political machine that was then in charge of Democratic politics in Kansas City. That outfit got Truman elected a few times to run the government of Jackson County and later, as nobody’s first choice, to the Senate.
Tom Pendergast and company engaged in a hybrid form of business and politics that had been described by the leader of a similar concern in New York City as “honest graft.” That meant no violence, quiet refreshers from the owners of speakeasies and brothels, contracts for (often) truly useful public works directed to friends and relatives and a great deal of taxpayers’ money used to buy a good deal of concrete, supplied by Pendergast’s more-or-less legitimate business.
A lot of that concrete was used to pave a lot of county roads and erect courthouses, auditoriums and other public buildings, deals which Truman usually made with qualified low bidders in a way that, as Truman later told the story, even seemed to win Pendergast’s respect. These deals put people to work, improved life for farmers and city folk alike, often came in ahead of schedule and under budget, and created long-standing examples of impressive architecture.
It was the New Deal before there was a New Deal.
Some of that concrete also went, in 1931, to pave the bed of Brush Creek, which runs right through the middle of Kansas City, not far from where I was born and, in dry summers, the site of a lot of great concerts. Including the really cool time I got to see the Dave Brubeck Quartet in person.
That paving was sold as a flood-control project, which, of course, it wasn’t, because replacing soil and plants with pavement doesn’t prevent flooding. It exacerbates it.
Later, when he found himself in the Senate, Truman did a lot of traveling, first on his own and then as chairman of a select committee, ferreting out waste, fraud and abuse in the ever-more-massive contracts the government was signing to build tanks and bombers and ships which would be needed when we entered the war that our president had vowed to keep us out of.
The point was never to stop the production of tanks and bombers and ships, or to deny the corporations fair payment. The point was to make sure those things were indeed being built, on budget and of sufficient quality that they would blow up the other side’s soldiers and not our own.
It all made Truman a political celebrity and got him elected as Franklin Roosevelt’s vice president in 1944. Whether it was a reward for exemplary service or to get him into a job where he could no longer annoy defense contractors has ever since been an open question.
At the national level, medical equipment is lost, stolen or strayed. The COVID-19 test and trace regimes that have saved thousands of lives in South Korea and Germany here are nowhere to be found. Our president deliriously free associates about drugs that are for malaria and treatments that are only good for dirty sinks and toilets.
Here in Utah, we have reason to worry that our own little Daddy Warbucks are primed to make bank on stuff that may or may not work, at a price that may or may not be anything near fair because, hey, what good is a national emergency if you can’t engage in a little profiteering?
Anyone who does sell useful stuff at a somewhat fair price deserves to make a decent profit. Whoever comes up with a vaccine or a cure is entitled to become very rich indeed. Nobody expected the makers of B-29s or Saturn Vs to do so at a loss.
Of course, Leo Szilard, who first thought up how a nuclear chain reaction would work, donated the patent to the British Admiralty. (Because he thought it should be a military secret.) And Jonas Salk never bothered to patent his polio vaccine. (Because the March of Dimes had already paid for it.)
And, maybe, somewhere out there, is the politician or bureaucrat who will make his or her name making sure we get what we are paying for.
George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, isn’t old enough to remember the Truman administration. He just feels like it sometimes.