Renaming Union Station after Truman may run afoul of a bill signed into law in 1975


Union Station in Washington. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters/REUTERS)
John Kelly
Columnist May 28

I wrote last week about my irritation that Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and others on the Hill are trying to graft Harry S. Truman’s name onto our train station. This is possible, supporters of the bill say, because Union Station is federal property. The city has no say in its name.

Well if we’re going to go all federal about this, we must read a letter that Gerald Laporte of Arlington sent to McCaskill’s office, a copy of which he sent to me. “Although I am a great admirer of President Harry Truman, I believe your legislation is likely contrary to the wishes of President Truman himself, his wife, Bess Truman, and his only child, Margaret Truman Daniel,” Gerald wrote.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

He’s in a position to know. From 1971 to 1975, Gerald was a legislative assistant to Rep. Wm. J. Randall of Missouri. Randall joined Sen. Stuart Symington in establishing the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Program, which was signed into law by President Gerald Ford on Jan. 4, 1975. Every year, around 60 U.S. college juniors who plan a career in public service are selected for this prestigious honor.

Truman, Gerald wrote, “encouraged the creation of a ‘living’ memorial to himself devoted to this purpose, rather than a bricks and mortar monument.”

Of course, the wishes of the dead don’t amount to much these days. FDR wanted a simple block of stone for his memorial. He got one — in front of the National Archives — but he also got that massive assemblage in West Potomac Park.

But it seems to me that folks who prefer that Union Station’s name not be changed have something more than sentiment on their side. They appear to have the law. As Gerald pointed out, the legislation that created the Truman Scholars program included a provision titled “Other Federal memorials prohibited.” The provision states: “The Harry S Truman Scholarship Program as authorized by this chapter shall be the sole Federal memorial to President Harry S Truman.”

Emphasis added. (I quote the original language, which erroneously did not include a period after Truman’s middle initial.)

I reached out to McCaskill’s office to see whether Gerald’s letter changed their thinking at all, but they declined to comment.

I suppose you could say a renamed Union Station would not be an official federal memorial to Truman, just a federal site that happened to be named in memory of him. But that strikes me as splitting hairs.

When she introduced the bill, McCaskill said there is no memorial to Truman in Washington. She’s wrong about that. We already have the State Department’s Harry S. Truman Federal Building. And if the whole point is to give Truman a long overdue honor, the argument sort of falls apart when the honor isn’t overdue.

The vast majority of readers I heard from oppose the name change. Mike Hartnett of Rockville wrote: “How about Polk, Garfield, Tyler, Pierce? What has been named for them? Will every president have something named after them in D.C.? Is there anything named after Nixon? When will it stop?”

Ken Berlack of Ellicott City pointed out that Kansas City, Mo., has its own Union Station.

“Maybe Sen. McCaskill should consider having Kansas City’s station carry the Truman name,” wrote Ken. “It already has a large statue of Truman gracing its main hall and, from a historical standpoint, it was one of the busiest stations ferrying U.S. troops east and then overseas to fight in WWI (the war in which Truman served as an artillery officer).”

But I think what the Truman boosters really want is something in Washington. And who can blame them? We attract more tourists than Kansas City or Independence or St. Louis. Sure, let’s honor Truman, but in a different way than poaching an existing building.

I like this idea from the District’s Carl Cole. “Since President Truman enjoyed his jaunts around the White House and vicinity, why a not a statue of him on a daily stroll,” Carl wrote. “Of course, such a piece would have to include two Secret Service agents, struggling to keep up with his pace. I’d place it in front of the Treasury Building, nearer 15th Street NW. If my memory serves me correctly, there is a photograph of him walking in that area depicting such.

“I think this is how you’d honor a great man, who never lost that common touch.”

I love the idea of a statue of a perambulating Truman as an official memorial to our 33rd president. Of course, Congress would need to overturn that earlier bill. Can we get bipartisan support for that?

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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