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Harry S. Truman

May 8, 1884

Photo of Senator Harry Truman of Missouri, later U.S. President

Harry S. Truman was born on May 8, 1884. In January 1935, in the company of an all-Democratic class of freshmen, he took his oath for the first time as a United States senator from Missouri.

Truman quickly became popular among his colleagues. They appreciated his folksy personality, his modesty, and his diligence. His big first-term legislative accomplishment was a landmark statute that promoted fair competition between the nation's railroads and the burgeoning trucking industry.

He won a second term in 1940 after a bruising primary contest. He later considered this race, against Missouri Governor Lloyd Stark, the toughest of his career. Stark was behind the unsubstantiated charge that Truman was a "tool" of the Kansas City political machine. Truman won that primary by fewer than 8,000 votes, thanks to a last-minute infusion of 8,000 votes from the St. Louis political machine. (Years later, associates agreed that there were only two political figures whom Truman truly hated: Lloyd Stark and Richard Nixon.)

At the start of his second Senate term in 1941, Truman took up the assignment that made his political career. Waste and corruption in the construction of army posts in preparation for World War II led him to propose and then to chair the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program. During the three years of his chairmanship, the "Truman Committee" held hundreds of hearings here and throughout the nation. This role made him a respected national figure. When his party's leaders dumped controversial vice president Henry Wallace from the 1944 ticket, Truman was the ideal replacement. Within a year, he would be president.

Early in 1947, after two years in office, President Truman came to Capitol Hill for a morale-boosting luncheon with Senate Democrats. Recent mid-term elections had made them the Senate's minority party for the first time in 14 years. During that luncheon, several senators had "dared" him to slip into the Senate Chamber "to see what would happen." Perhaps they had in mind surprising the presiding officer, Republican President Pro Tempore Arthur Vandenberg. They succeeded. Without notice, Truman walked directly to his old back-row desk. He loved that location, because, as he once confessed, when the going got rough, the door was only 10 feet away.

Senator Vandenberg graciously acknowledged the president. Then, violating Senate rules against non-senators speaking on the floor, Vandenberg recognized him for five minutes. "I sometimes get homesick for this seat." said Truman. "I spent what I think were the ten best years of my life in the Senate. I made friendships and had associations which I can never forget." As the chamber erupted in applause and lusty cheers, an ecstatic Truman slipped out that door nearest his old seat.