Moving through his presidency, Ronald Reagan has looked back admiringly on predecessors like Calvin Coolidge and Franklin Roosevelt. He gets inspiration from them. It's time that he took up with Harry Truman.
Harry, it has turned out, understood women. Reagan doesn't. He insulted them with his crack about "women's place," then worsened it with his cave man anecdote. For Harry Truman, the place for his wife Bess was also his place: as coequals who chose to look to each other for what is needed most in life, the feeling that we matter to someone.
Harry Truman's awareness that his wife's place was his place is revealed in what may prove to be the richest insider book of the year: "Dear Bess: The Letters from Harry to Bess Truman 1910-1959." The thick volume, published this month, is an affecting account of a man loving a woman by the simplest and deepest ardency of all--paying attention.
The letters cover Truman's days as a young Missouri farmer when he signed them "Very Sincerely, Harry S Truman," to ones written as an ex-president and signed off "Lots of love, Harry." When he came to the end of his letters, he would end by promising to write more of them. "I'll write just as often as I can." "I'll write every time I have a minute."
Those were the 1918 promises of Lt. Truman during World War I. He was 34 and a year away from marriage. Wartime loneliness may have prompted his declarations, but 25 years later, as a U.S. senator, he was still writing every time he had a minute. Thirty years later, during separations from Bess, he wrote as often as he could as a president.
What did he say? Compared with the exquisitry of what the Brownings wrote to each other, or what Shaw put on paper to Ellen Terry, not much. From the family farm in Grandview, Mo., he wrote as a 27-year-old bachelor that "I cut corn all day yesterday. That's a job that causes a fellow to earn his keep . . . I scratched my face and wore out my overalls at the knee." From Washington in the early 1940s, he wrote of poker games and committee hearings, the two being of equal mental challenge. On some days, he wrote two letters. In a 15-day period in June 1942, he wrote letters on the 13th, 16th, 19th, 20th, 21st, 25th, 27th and 28th.
A question raised by Truman's being, in his daughter's words, a "demon letter writer," is whether the writing created the love or the love created the writing. Probably the second. The couple met as children. He was 6, she was 5. At 25, he proposed to her--in a letter. She wasn't ready and wrote back no. He replied: "You know that you turned me down so easy that I am almost happy anyway . . . What made me feel real good is that you were good enough to answer me seriously and not make fun of me anyway . . . You may think I'll get over it as all boys do. I guess I am something of a freak myself. I really never had any desire to make love to a girl just for the fun of it, and you have always been the reason. I have never met a girl in my life that you were not the first to be compared with her, to see wherein she was lacking and she always was."
When they married, Harry was 35, Bess 34. In the preface to the collection of letters, its editor, Robert H. Ferrell, said he believed that "the maturity of the relationship, from the outset, must have contributed to their mutual respect. But more than that, they so liked each other that any sense of inferiority, one to the other, was impossible."
By finding time to write to his wife, and making time if it couldn't be found, Truman was sending her more than chatty letters. He was bathing her in attention. In a marriage that lasts beyond five or ten years, attentiveness is often the last part of himself that a husband thinks of giving. A wife who is loved as an equal can endure almost anything, as long as she knows that the direction of her husband's mind is toward her.
In his 45-year stream of letters, Harry was telling Bess that she was at the center of his directions. For him, she wasn't a woman who had a place nor did she help him get over his cave man ways, the role for which Ronald Reagan praised women. He was Harry, she was Bess. They each kept their identity by sharing their minds.