The Truman Show

How the 33rd president finagled his way to a post–White House fortune — and created a damaging precedent.

The bucks didn’t stop here. Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Bettmann Archive via Getty Images
The bucks didn’t stop here. Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Bettmann Archive via Getty Images

In February 1958, the immense prime-time audience that tuned into Edward R. Murrow’s CBS program See It Now was treated to a historical first: a television interview with a former president of the United States. Among various other topics, the great journalist asked Harry Truman about how he was getting along financially.

As was his custom, the plainspoken Missourian minced no words about his situation. “You know,” Truman told Murrow, “the United States government turns its chief executives out to grass. They’re just allowed to starve.” Truman went on to claim that only his recent inheritance of the family farm was keeping him off the welfare rolls: “If I hadn’t inherited some property that finally paid things through, I’d be on relief right now.”

The tale of financial woe Truman was telling the television public was the same one he had been repeating privately to leaders of Congress, as he pushed for a bill to provide him with a pension. “Sam, I’m not lobbying for the bill,” Truman had written to Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn a few months earlier. But if the bill did not become law, he added ominously, he would have to “go ahead with some contracts to keep ahead of the hounds.”

The spectacle of a former president of the United States being forced to enter into grubby commercial arrangements to stave off penury was a favorite theme for Truman. So too was his claim that only the recent sale of the family farm was keeping him afloat. Just three weeks before the Murrow interview, he had written to House Majority Leader John McCormack, claiming that the overhead he had incurred in writing his memoirs and answering the blizzard of mail he received as a former president had amounted to more than $153,000 — a staggering sum when adjusted for today’s monetary values (this would be equivalent to approximately $1.5 million in 2021 dollars). “Had it not been for the fact that I was able to sell some property that my brother, sister, and I inherited from our mother, I would practically be on relief,” he told McCormack.

Truman went on to complain that the combination of enormous overhead and sky-high income taxes had left him with a net profit of only 6 percent on the original $600,000 sale price of his memoirs. He noted that, when he was president, he had intervened with the IRS to get the agency to give favorable tax treatment to Dwight Eisenhower’s memoir deal, but that after succeeding to the same office, Eisenhower had failed to return the favor.

“I don’t want any pension and never wanted any because I’ll manage to get along,” Truman wrote, “but I am just giving you the difference in the approach between the great General and myself on the Memoirs. My net return will be about $37,000 over a five-year period!”

Six months after the broadcast of the Murrow interview, Congress passed and Eisenhower signed the Former Presidents Act, the law that now provides our current ex-presidents with millions of dollars per year in benefits.

What neither the general public nor the politicians that Truman successfully pressured knew at the time was that this lobbying effort was based on falsehoods. Harry Truman was a very rich man on the day he left the White House, and he became a good deal richer in the five and a half years between that day and the passage of the FPA. Moreover, Truman departed from the White House with so much money because he apparently misappropriated what in today’s terms would be millions of dollars from the United States government.

The relatively recent release of some of Truman’s financial records has made it possible to nail down the precise details of this story. Yet the fact that it has taken more than 60 years for that story to come to light also tells us a great deal about what could be called the politics of nostalgia: of the tendency of everyone from professional historians to the public at large to cast a sentimental haze around certain historical figures and periods, when we assume honorable men ruled the land and America was still truly great.

This tendency has produced a historical myth about Harry Truman that still has contemporary consequences, as it continues to be deployed to rationalize the unjustifiable practice of showering millions of dollars per year of government benefits on our uniformly wealthy ex-presidents.

This past February, when the Senate failed for a second time to convict an impeached Donald Trump, the purported billionaire remained fully eligible to receive a seven-figure annual package of taxpayer support.

This includes an annual pension, extremely expensive office space — currently the federal government spends nearly $130,000 every month renting offices for former presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama — salaries for staff, and other emoluments. Altogether, it adds up to more than $1 million per year in benefits for each of these former presidents. (Jimmy Carter receives about half this much, mostly because he rents far less-expensive real estate than his successors.) These figures do not include the cost of lifetime Secret Service protection. That cost is classified and authorized under a different statute than the Former Presidents Act. (In May, it was revealed that Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort had been billing the Secret Service for the use of a room at the resort — a space the agency was employing for logistical purposes while protecting the former president.)

Then-presidential candidate Barack Obama stands alongside former U.S. president Bill Clinton in Clinton’s Harlem office in 2008. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

In recent years, as ex-presidents have accumulated tens of millions of dollars from book deals, speaking fees, and other avenues by which they can cash in on their fame, a series of bipartisan bills have attempted to pare the FPA’s benefits. In 2016, one such bill passed both houses of Congress, only to be vetoed by President Obama. Since then, two more bills have made their way through the legislative process without ultimately becoming law.

Supporters of these efforts, which date back to the 1980s, often argue that the FPA was passed in large part because Harry Truman left the White House with very little money and no source of income beyond his $112.56 per month Army pension. Truman refused to exploit his status as an ex-president to ameliorate his financial struggles, they say, and, as a result, Congress passed the FPA to make sure both he and other future former presidents would not, in the words of one of the bill’s sponsors, be forced “to write and lecture to gain a livelihood in their final days.” The aim of the bill was to ensure that former presidents do not engage “in business or occupation which would demean the office he has held or capitalize upon it in any improper way.”

Various critics have pointed out that, despite the FPA’s generous benefits, Truman’s dignified example has not been followed by his successors. For example, in 2017, the distinguished sociologist Jerome Karabel took to the pages of the New York Times to criticize Barack Obama for accepting a $400,000 speaking fee from a Wall Street firm, just a few months after leaving office. Obama, Karabel noted, was following in the unfortunate footsteps of his recent predecessors, going back to at least Gerald Ford, who accepted memberships on various corporate boards, and Ronald Reagan, who took $2 million for giving a couple of speeches to a Japanese company shortly after leaving office. He argued this modern-day pattern reached its “apex with Bill and Hillary Clinton, who earned a combined $139 million from such undertakings, including $35 million from speeches to financial services, real estate, and insurance companies.”

Karabel drew a striking contrast between this orgy of monetizing the presidency and Harry Truman’s financial rectitude, claiming that the former development represented “an enormous attitudinal shift” since the 1950s: “When the financially strapped Mr. Truman turned down generous offers, he declined without hesitation, believing that it would violate his own sense of dignity as well as the dignity of the presidency,” Karabel argued. “But no such normative constraints obtain in a society where the disruptive entrepreneur is the cultural hero, the public servant is held in low esteem, and inequality has risen to its highest levels since the 1920s. What was unbecoming in 1953 is now considered appropriate.”

Earlier this year, when it was brought to the public’s attention that taxpayers were going to be forced to bestow millions of dollars on a twice-impeached plutocrat with a long history of financial malfeasance, story after story referencing the FPA echoed the gist of Karabel’s narrative. The current, 20,000-plus-word Wikipedia biography of Truman goes so far as to assert that, because his earlier business ventures had failed, Truman left the White House with “no personal savings.”

Every aspect of this narrative is false. My research into Truman’s private financial files, which became available with the release of his widow Bess Truman’s personal papers, reveals the following:

• When Truman left the White House, he had, according to his own (far too conservative) estimate, a net worth that would be equivalent to $6.6 million in simple inflation-adjusted terms.

• By his own accounting, Truman’s wealth increased by the 2021 equivalent of another $3.7 million when Congress passed the Former Presidents Act five and a half years after he left office.

• Contrary to his claims, Truman made a fortune from his memoirs, and from other writing and speaking engagements, in the years immediately after he left the presidency.

• Truman’s repeated insistence that only his inheritance and subsequent sale of the family farm were keeping him from financial distress was false in several ways. For one thing, Truman had already become a very wealthy man several years before he sold that land. For another, Truman did not actually inherit any of the land: He bought it, in no small part, with money that he had misappropriated from the federal government. He then sold it a few years later at an enormous profit.

• A large portion of the wealth Truman accumulated during his years in the White House seems to have come from a more than $2 million (in 2021 terms) expense account that Congress created a few days before the beginning of his full elected term. Truman apparently illegally pocketed the bulk of this money and filed fraudulent tax returns to disguise that fact.

The story that Truman left the White House with very little money, and then refused to exploit his status as former president to enrich himself, has become part of the semi-official historical record primarily because it is the narrative spun in David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize–winning 1992 biography Truman. McCullough’s recitation of the purported facts of the matter have been cited over and over again, both by Truman’s subsequent biographers and by the popular media.

Here is how McCullough describes Truman’s financial situation when he left the White House in January 1953:

He had come home without salary or pension. He had no income or support of any kind from the federal government other than his Army pension of $112.56 a month. He was provided with no government funds for secretarial help or office space, not a penny of expense money, and while he and Bess had been able to put aside part of his $100,000-a-year salary as president during his second term, primarily in government bonds, it was in all probability a modest amount … In fact, it is known that Truman had been forced to take out a loan at the National Bank in Washington in his last weeks as president, to tide him over, though the amount was never disclosed.

McCullough goes on to describe how Truman had, with his two siblings, acquired the several hundred acres of land that constituted the Truman family farm, but he asserts that Truman probably had little in the way of liquid assets, and that he and Bess moved into Bess’s mother’s old house — which was apparently in a state of some disrepair — out of financial necessity more than anything else:

Certainly, as things were, there could be no extravagant living. In effect they were land-rich only … Indeed among the reasons why they had come back to Independence and the old house was that financially they had little other choice.

Yet despite these straitened circumstances, McCullough asserts, Truman refused to take the easy money that was available to him if he chose to trade on the cachet of his former office. Truman’s only intention “was to do nothing — accept no position, lend his name to no organization or transaction — that would exploit or commercialize the prestige and dignity of the office of the President.”

McCullough’s narrative has to contend with the awkward detail that, a month after he left the White House, Truman signed a book deal to publish his memoirs for the then-stupendous sum of $600,000 (merely adjusting for inflation converts this to figure to more than $6 million in 2021 money). But McCullough finesses this fact by citing Truman’s own claim to John McCormack that he netted a paltry $37,000 on the book deal, after taxes and expenses.

Truman with his memoirs in 1955. Photo: Bettmann Archive via Getty Images

It turns out that all this is nothing, as a future occupant of the Oval Office might put it, but a bunch of malarkey. And while it is true that McCullough did not have access to Bess Truman’s personal files when he wrote his eponymous biography of the 33rd president, both he and the other historians who have written about Truman’s life should have recognized it as such, simply on the basis of the facts that were available to them at the time.

Chief among these facts is that, during his nearly eight years as president, Truman drew one of the largest salaries paid to any American of the era. That salary — $75,000 per year when Truman became president in April of 1945 upon the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then raised to $100,000 by a statute passed by Congress just days before the beginning of Truman’s elected term in January 1949 — was comparable to the compensation received at the time by the CEOs of America’s largest and most profitable corporations. Indeed, in six of his eight years as president, Truman was paid more than any Major League Baseball star. (In two of those years, he was tied with Joe DiMaggio, whose $100,000 salary in 1949 and 1950 would remain a record until Willie Mays was paid $5,000 more in 1963.)

McCullough’s speculation that Truman probably saved little money as president thus never made any sense. And under the circumstances, McCullough’s anecdote that Truman took out a personal bank loan so that he could afford to move back to Missouri is, to put it mildly, implausible.

As for Truman’s claim that he netted only $37,000 from his $600,000 book contract: That, too, was always incredible. Indeed, in his letter to John McCormack in which Truman makes this claim, the very numbers he cites to support it are transparently nonsensical. Truman says in the letter that he had to incur $153,000 in expenses between 1953 and 1956, and that he paid an effective tax rate of 67 percent on the remainder. Leave aside for the moment that, as we shall see, these numbers bore no relation to reality. The striking fact is that, even if we were to accept them on their face, they would leave Truman with a $147,000 net profit on the memoirs, not $37,000.

McCullough and his fellow historians did not challenge Truman’s tale about how inheriting the family farm kept him off the welfare rolls. In fact, as they were well aware, Truman inherited no land from his mother, because in 1940 his mother lost what was by then left of the family-farm land to foreclosure.

Yet once again, such brazen narrative inconsistencies failed to put a dent in either McCullough’s credulity or in that of the other historians who have repeated Truman’s claim without a hint of skepticism.

All of this should have been more than enough to cause Truman’s biographers to treat his stories of suffering significant post-presidential economic stress with deep skepticism. But they did not, and Bess Truman’s private papers reveal just how false those stories were.

One thing the files make clear is that, when Truman succeeded to the presidency, his net worth was fairly negligible. Truman had made very little money prior to becoming a United States senator in 1935 at the age of 50. Truman’s previous occupations included running the family farm in his 20s and early 30s before joining the Army during World War I. After the war, he owned and operated a men’s clothing store in Kansas City. This business failed after three years, leaving Truman with debts that he would spend more than a decade trying to pay down.

Truman, left, in his Kansas City store, circa 1920. Photo: AP

During the 12 years prior to his election to the Senate, Truman served as a county administrative judge, at a salary of $3,500 per year. The great advantage of this position for Truman, still struggling with the debt from the failed business, was that his government salary could not be garnished by creditors.

Truman did make $10,000 per year as a senator throughout his 50s, which was a very large salary at the time — but during these years he also incurred very high expenses. He lived in a pricey Washington neighborhood; he maintained a residence back in Missouri; he was the sole financial support for his aged mother and unmarried sister; he sent his daughter to an expensive private college; and he helped ameliorate from time to time the financial problems of some of his wife’s impecunious relatives.

The result was that, when Franklin Roosevelt was considering replacing Henry Wallace as his vice-president with Truman in 1944, Truman’s entire net worth consisted of about $2,500 in a bank account and likely the $5,000 in savings bonds he reported two years earlier. He owned no real estate, or, apparently, any stocks or other investments. A 60-year-old man whose only remunerative activity for the past 20 years had been holding elective office, Truman was, in retrospect, in some danger of facing genuine financial distress should his political career have come to a sudden end, as it could have quite easily had FDR not chosen him. (Truman was facing a tough Senate reelection campaign in 1946, which turned out to be a wave election for Republican candidates.)

This changed radically when Truman became president. Just how radically is revealed by a draft will in Bess Truman’s files, dated December 26, 1953. Written in Truman’s own hand, the document totals up Truman’s estimate of his primary assets a few months after the end of his presidency.

These consisted of $250,000 in United States savings bonds, $150,000 in cash, and what Truman estimated to be $250,000 in land, along with a book contract that he figured would net him $100,000 after taxes and expenses (as we shall see, both of these latter estimates turned out to be far too low).

In sum, if we disregard the book contract he signed a month after leaving the White House, Truman’s estimate of his net worth when he departed the presidency was approximately $650,000. Simply adjusted for inflation, that $650,000 is equivalent to $6.6 million today. But this latter figure fails to capture the fact that America is a vastly wealthier nation now than it was then. Consider that in 1953, the 99th percentile of household net worth was approximately $125,000. Meanwhile, in 2020, the comparable figure was about $11.1 million. In other words, to be as rich today relative to other Americans as Truman was in 1953, a person would have to have a net worth of around $58 million.

By the time he left the presidency, Truman was not merely part of what we now refer to as “the one percent,” but was actually somewhere toward the top of that particular demographic. While his wealth was not comparable to that of the plutocrats of his time — the Rockefellers and the Fords and the like — he was without question a very rich man.

And Truman’s wealth would grow considerably over the next five years, during the very period he was lobbying Congress and the public for pension benefits while claiming that he would have been living hand-to-mouth if he had not inherited the family farm from his mother.

Exactly how much richer he became is revealed by another document in Bess Truman’s files: an accounting that Truman made of his assets in January 1959, five months after the passage of the Former Presidents Act. This accounting includes a detailed breakdown of the former president’s holdings, which by this time included a diversified portfolio of stocks and even an ownership share in the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams franchise, whose part-owner was his longtime friend Edwin Pauley.

All told, Truman calculated his net worth to be $1,046,788.86. Six years after leaving the presidency, he was a millionaire — and at a time when this term still retained its pre-inflationary grandeur.  A person in 2021 would have to have a net worth of approximately $74 million to be as rich as Truman was in 1959, relative to the other Americans of his time.

Truman in 1960. Photo: Bettmann Archive via Getty Images

Where did all this money come from? Bess Truman’s personal files, which among many other things contain almost all of the family’s annual tax returns after Harry was elected to the Senate in 1934, allow us to engage in a detailed forensic accounting of her husband’s finances.

Those returns reveal the following facts:

• Truman netted approximately $335,000 ($3.8 million in 2021 dollars) after taxes on his reported income during his eight years in the White House.

• According to his tax returns, Truman made almost $300,000 ($2.95 million in 2021 dollars) on his memoirs after taxes and expenses, not the $37,000 figure he quoted to members of Congress when he was lobbying for post-presidential benefits.

• Over the course of his presidency, Truman paid approximately $83,000 ($943,500 in 2021 dollars) to acquire more than 400 acres of what had formerly been the family farm. He sold almost all this land, along with 20 more acres he acquired in 1955, in the years immediately after leaving the White House for about $566,633 ($5.66 million, inflation-adjusted). A few weeks after leaving the White House, and before he had yet made any money from his post-presidential activities, Truman paid $18,750 to buy his late mother-in-law’s house in Independence.

• CBS appears to have paid Truman $25,000 — a sum equal to five times the typical American family’s annual income — to appear on the Edward Murrow program, during which he complained about his post-presidential financial circumstances.

• Truman’s tax returns claim that he paid more than $265,000, or $2.56 million in 2021 dollars, in professional expenses during his first eight years after he left the White House. (Professional expenses for Truman would have included things like writing and editing assistance with his memoirs and the cost of renting an office.) This sum suggests that Truman’s tax returns during this era would not have fared well under any kind of audit.

The documents also present us with a striking financial mystery: How did Truman, who, as we have seen, entered the White House with a negligible net worth, manage to depart it less than eight years later having saved and invested a total of $501,750 — $250,000 in bonds, $150,000 in cash, and about $101,750 in land purchases?

Truman’s total official post-tax income during his White House years was $335,500. While the bulk of his living expenses were taken care of by the government, he and his family did have some significant personal expenditures during these years, such as his daughter’s college tuition. Thus, when we take a conservative estimate of Truman’s personal expenditures into account, the gap between Truman’s $335,500 post-tax official presidential income and the $501,750 he saved and invested during these years must have practically equaled if not actually exceeded $200,000.

How did Truman acquire an extra $200,000 during his years in the White House? Just a few days before the beginning of Truman’s elected term in January 1949, Congress raised the annual presidential salary from $75,000 to $100,000, and, in addition, created a $50,000 annual presidential expense account that was intended, per the enabling legislation, to “assist in defraying expenses relating to or resulting from the discharge of [the president’s] official duties.” (This sum was equivalent to $566,000 in 2021 dollars.)

Two other aspects of this expense account would end up being of special significance: The account was not taxable, and Truman was not required to provide any documentation regarding exactly what “expenses relating to or resulting from the discharge” of his official duties he was defraying whenever he drew on it.

This was, in retrospect, a situation ripe for abuse. And not only in retrospect: The debates in Congress regarding the account’s creation reveal that several legislators tried, as tactfully as possible, to create a mechanism to discourage misuse of the account’s funds. But at no point in the congressional debates on the bill did anyone suggest the possibility that a president might simply pocket the funds in the expense account.

In 1951, just two years after the account’s creation, Congress amended the law to make the account taxable, meaning that going forward, any money drawn out of it by the president would have to be reported to the IRS. Truman signed that bill into law.

But he did not report that any funds from the expense account had been converted to personal income on either his 1951, 1952, or 1953 tax returns. A few months after leaving office, Truman let Bess know where some of that expense-account money had ended up: in a safety deposit box at the Columbia National Bank in Kansas City.

“The cash in the box at the Columbia has been for emergency use,” he wrote in the December 1953 draft will in which he totaled up his assets at the time. “I kept it in the little safe in the White House as long as I was there. It came out of the $50,000 expense account that was not accountable for taxes. It should be put into bonds except what you need for immediate use.”

In that same document, he confirms where all the family’s suddenly enormous net worth came from: “Bonds, land, and cash all come from savings of presidential salary and free expense account. It should keep you and Margaret comfortably.”

The most obvious explanation for the state of Harry Truman’s finances when he left the White House is that he simply pocketed all or nearly all of the $200,000 that Congress appropriated for his official duties. And as we have seen, Truman paid no taxes on that $200,000, even though he was legally required to do so during the second half of his elected term. (Note that the marginal rate on income over $100,000 at the time was 90 percent.) If he covertly — and illegally — supplemented that salary with the untaxed proceeds of the expense account, Truman would have in effect doubled what was already one of the highest salaries in the country. 

The Trumans in front of their house in Independence, Missouri. Photo: ullstein bild via Getty Images

The story of Harry Truman’s economic exploitation of his presidency to become a very rich man, and his subsequent dishonesty regarding his financial circumstances, raises several questions.

For example, did Truman’s apparent misappropriation of the White House expense account play a role in his decision not to run for another term in 1952? The fact that Congress had in 1951 decided to make the funds drawn from the account taxable, and that Truman had not and would not declare any of that money on his tax return, suggests he may well have at least contemplated the fact that a major scandal would certainly erupt if his treatment of the account should become public in the midst of another presidential campaign.

Further, what factors led Truman to seemingly misappropriate that money, and then, in the years immediately after his presidency, tell a series of outrageous lies to congressional leadership and the public about his financial situation, while trying to extract benefits from the federal government that he didn’t actually need?

This latter question is particularly puzzling, given that to all appearances Truman lived a fairly modest life, financially speaking, for the nearly 20 years that passed between his departure from the presidency and his death in December 1972. For instance, in his 1959 accounting of his assets, the house that had belonged to his wife’s mother, and that in 1953 became the first and only residence that Truman would ever purchase, accounted for less than 3 percent of Truman’s net worth. (Indeed, Truman spent so little money on the property that when Bess Truman died a decade after her husband, the place was practically falling down.)

Is it possible that on some emotional level, the post-presidential Truman — a man who had lived a life of some financial precariousness for most of his adult years — was incapable of accepting that he was now very rich? Did some sense of resentment gnaw at him when he lobbied so furiously for benefits that, generous as they were when considered in the context of the incomes of ordinary American taxpayers, were essentially a trivial sum to a man who had acquired such a large fortune?

Beyond Truman’s own behavior and the motivations for it, why did his account of his post-presidential financial struggles, which even on the basis of the publicly available information was always highly suspicious, become something that all his biographers dutifully repeated for many decades? This is an especially important question, given that this story continues to be presented even today as the central justification for why American taxpayers provide millions of dollars a year to the very wealthy men who are former presidents of the United States.

I suggest the persistence of this narrative in the face of the evidence illustrates what might be called the politics of nostalgia. Truman became, shortly after his death in 1972, one of the subjects of a more general wave of cultural reminiscence that swept over America during the Watergate era. The Truman boom featured, among other things, the publication of Merle Miller’s 1974 oral biography Plain Speaking, the 1975 hit song “Harry Truman” by the rock group Chicago, and later that year, the biographical play and subsequent film, Give ’em Hell, Harry!, starring James Whitmore. As the Watergate scandal and its aftermath dominated the headlines, Americans seemed to long for an idealized version of this plainspoken son of the midwestern soil.

Now, nearly a half-century later, we are being treated to the possibility of Donald Trump charging taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to “rent” space for his Office of the Former President inside his own Mar-a-Lago home. This would be merely the latest and most egregious abuse of the Former Presidents Act — a law that bestows millions of dollars of government money on men who have exploited their post-presidential status to acquire or expand enormous personal fortunes.

This law only exists because of Harry Truman’s remarkably successful campaign to cover up the fact that he himself exploited the office of the presidency to become a very wealthy man. The debunking of that myth should serve as an ideal occasion to stop subsidizing the lifestyles of our rich and famous ex-presidents.

The Truman Show