May 8 marks the birth anniversary of an American president who never tired of saying that the "happiest ten years" of his life were those he spent in the United States Senate. Born on May 8, 1884, Missouri's Harry S. Truman came to the Senate at the age of 50 in January 1935.
Truman quickly became popular among his Senate colleagues who appreciated his folksy personality, his modesty, and his diligence. In 1941, he took up the assignment that made his political career. Convinced that waste and corruption were strangling the nation’s efforts to mobilize for the war in Europe, Truman chaired the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program. During the three years of his chairmanship, the “Truman Committee” held hundreds of hearings in Washington and around the country. This role erased his earlier image as a Kansas City political hack and gave him working experience with business, labor, agriculture, and executive agencies that would serve him well in later years. In 1944, when party leaders sought a replacement for controversial Vice President Henry Wallace, Truman’s national stature made him an ideal compromise choice.
On May 8, 1964, Harry Truman celebrated his 80th birthday with a tumultuous return visit to the Senate Chamber. In the mid-1930s, Senator Truman had proposed that former presidents be allowed the privilege of speaking on the Senate floor, and in committees, to discuss pending legislation. He made this offer as a token of respect for Herbert Hoover, the only living former president at that time. In 1963, the Senate modified its rules to incorporate a more restrictive version of Truman’s earlier proposal. In a gesture that initially applied to Truman, Hoover, and Dwight Eisenhower, the Senate agreed to allow former presidents to address the body “upon proper written notice.”
Truman entered the chamber to a thunderous standing ovation. After being escorted to the front row seat of Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, he listened as 25 senators in turn rose to speak in celebration of his career and birthday. When it was his time to respond, Truman choked with emotion. Referring to the Senate’s newly extended privilege, he said, “I’m so overcome that I can’t take advantage of this rule right now.” Then, as senators pressed in to shake his hand, he exclaimed, “You can wish me many more happy birthdays, but I’ll never have another one like this.”
McCullough, David. Truman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.