Bye, Alexander Hamilton, you’re out. Harry Truman, you’re in.
The gorgeous Capitol Rotunda statues are so heavy that if one arrives, one must go. Presidents take precedent in our history’s most sacred space.
Now under the dome, a new statue of the 33rd president just moved in. It’s a handsome bronze portrait of the plain man from Missouri, greeted with speeches and military fanfare.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi presided and told of meeting the Democratic president when she was a girl in Baltimore.
I witnessed the moment floating across time.
Like Truman, President Joe Biden served as a vice president and became president at a weighty turning point. They shared a penchant for speaking straight without fancy flourishes. That common touch of humanity won elections. Polls, pundits and newspapers famously counted Truman out against Thomas Dewey in 1948.
President Truman often gets overlooked and underestimated in the towering shadow of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who died in office after 12 years. Few men could have picked up the reins of leadership — abroad and at home — as well as Truman did, from 1945 to 1953.
Truman sent aid to Europe to pick up the pieces when it was broken, in shambles after World War II. The generous helping hand was called the Marshall Plan — after his secretary of state, George Marshall.
Few presidents would have named a major international relief program after anyone else.
In the post-war period, Truman was a founder of the United Nations, NATO and, less fortunately, the Cold War with the Soviet Union and the misbegotten Korean War.
Like Abraham Lincoln, Truman was self-educated, from humble origins. Each grew up on farm soil, a thousand miles away from the Eastern establishment. His Latin teacher awakened a thirst to read ancient history, which he studied for lessons in public life and leadership.
Truman was no simple country boy.
At home, Truman took strides forward on civil rights, largely forgotten. One catalyst was police brutality; a South Carolina Black soldier in dress uniform was beaten and blinded.
Truman struck down segregation in the military and the federal workforce. President Woodrow Wilson had dealt a deep blow to Black citizens by segregating the federal workforce in 1913.
Ace Missouri Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D) said at the event, Truman was the first president to address the NAACP. He hailed from a border slave state, with Confederate sympathies, which makes his progress on race more noteworthy.
Vice President Truman was thrust into the presidency in April 1945, when the patrician Roosevelt died.
“I felt as though the moon, the stars and all the planets fell down on me,” Truman told reporters. To a Republican friend, Vermont Sen. George Aiken, he voiced fears, saying, “I’m not big enough for this job.”
What a time that was. The world war in Europe was just over, but the war on the other side of the world in Japan still raged. America emerged at the world’s center stage.
But after 82 days on the job as Roosevelt’s vice president, Truman did not even know about the mighty secret power of the atomic bomb.
Imagine that. As the speakers told the story, Truman was playing cards in the Capitol. A place he loved as a senator was the speaker’s hideaway, jokingly called the “Board of Education.” From there, he was summoned to the White House.
“I thought I was going to see the president,” Truman wrote to his mother. “I found I was the president.” He was totally devoted to her, his wife Bess and daughter Margaret. (When her singing concert was panned, Truman wrote a blistering letter to the critic.)
Before long, Truman loosed the awesome atomic power — twice — bombing Japan. He never regretted it.
Pelosi recalled Truman campaigning with her father, a congressman.
“Inviting and charming,” she said. “I was just in awe of him.”
The 1,000-pound statue is “spectacular,” she said, capturing his daily “medicine” — a morning walk. Truman joins a circle of distinguished presidents in the Rotunda.
Could a politician be better named than “Truman” with a hometown called “Independence”?
Biographer Jeffrey Frank found Truman’s folksy “Give ’em hell, Harry” ways masked a complicated character.
And if you don’t know, now you know, Hamilton.
Jeffrey Frank’s new biography, “The Trials of Harry S. Truman: The Extraordinary Presidency of an Ordinary Man,” is recommended.
Jamie Stiehm may be reached at JamieStiehm.com. Follow her on Twitter @JamieStiehm.