When I wrote a post about my fascination with Presidential children a few years ago, Margaret Truman didn’t even get a mention. In my defense, I was only writing about the kids I personally remember being in the White House. Caroline and John-John played a role in my earliest memory (I was 4 years old when their dad was assassinated and watching his funeral on TV with my sobbing mother is burned into my brain) and I remained interested in all the progeny that followed: Luci and Lynda Bird, Tricia and Julie, Susan and her brothers, Amy and hers, Patti and Ron, Chelsea. Oh, and those two generations of Bush offspring I’d just as soon forget.
Margaret Truman, the only child of Harry and Bess Truman, died this week at the age of 83. That leaves Eisenhower’s 85-year-old son John as the last member of the Old Guard of Presidential spawn. His daughter-in-law Julie Nixon Eisenhower heads up the next tier of White House kids, now in their sixties. That group includes her sister, the Johnson girls, and Michael Reagan. They are followed by the fiftysomething Fords, the elder Bushes, the Carter boys, Caroline Kennedy, and Patti Davis. Ron Reagan turns 50 this year and Amy Carter just turned 40 (gulp!). The youngsters of the bunch are Chelsea and the Bush twins, still in their 20s. If Barack Obama wins the Presidency, he’d bring the youngest kids to the White House since JFK (as opposed to John McCain whose oldest child is exactly my age).
Though not particularly remembered as a feminist, Margaret Truman broke plenty of barriers in her day. Accounts of her early years in the White House reveal a self-assured young woman who was not willing to give up her own dreams to fit a predetermined mold. Margaret was a 21-year-old college student when her father became President (or as she used to put it, “after everything happened”) following Roosevelt’s death in 1945. She performed her duties as First Daughter without complaint but clearly did not relish her new fame. She used to refer to the White House as the Great White Jail. “You never feel at home in the White House,” she told a reporter. “Not if you have any sense.”
Margaret was considered the first “career girl” in the White House. Her opera ambitions were often dismissed as an exercise in nepotism but that was an unfair claim. Margaret had been serious about singing long before she ever dreamed her father would be President, and if anything, she felt that being a Truman hurt her career rather than helped it. She tried to sing under a different name but it was too late to go incognito. She wrote that rather than giving her a free ride because of her position, critics expected her to be better than the best merely to justify being on the stage.
When she sang in Constitution Hall in 1950, Paul Hume, the music critic for “The Washington Post,” praised her stage presence but reluctantly stated that “she cannot sing very well” and that she was “flat a good deal of the time.” In his now infamous reply, written in his own handwriting on White House stationery, President Truman roared to his daughter’s defense.
I have just read your lousy review buried in the back pages. You sound like a frustrated old man who never made a success, an eight-ulcer man on a four-ulcer job, and all four ulcers working…I never met you, but if I do you’ll need a new nose and plenty of beefsteak and perhaps a supporter below.
You go, Harry! Truman’s aides had begged the President not to send the letter but he wouldn’t listen. And though he was criticized by many (including Soviet editorialists and cartoonists who had a field day lampooning the exchange), most Americans were moved by the father’s sincere if brutish defense of his sweet daughter. Margaret herself seemed embarrassed by the whole episode, stressing that Hume was a fine critic who “has a perfect right to say whatever he thinks.” When pressed to comment on her daddy’s angry missive, she finally offered, “I’m glad to see that chivalry isn’t dead” but then made it quite clear that she’d spoken with the President and future critics were free to write whatever they liked about her abilities without fear of retribution from the White House. Revealingly, Bill Clinton kept a framed copy of Truman’s letter in the Oval Office during his own Presidency.
Realizing that her voice just wasn’t going to cut it in the opera world, Margaret switched to a career in broadcasting. She co-hosted a radio show with Mike Wallace for several years, appeared on television shows, and even did summer stock. Later in life, she became a successful biographer (she wrote books about both of her parents) and an acclaimed novelist. Beginning with “Murder at the White House,” she wrote a series of mysteries that took place in or around Washington. “My mother seems to have a strong opinion, often bad, of almost everyone in Washington,” one of her sons said. “That’s why she writes those murder mysteries; so she can kill them all off, one at a time.”
As far as I’m concerned, Margaret Truman was the model First Child. I’m glad that she had such a happy, successful life, especially since there has been no shortage of scandals and tragedies in the lives of Presidential children, right from the start. After his second oldest son, Charles, died in a drunken stupor, John Adams renounced him as a rake. Years later, when Charles' brother became President, the first President Adams grumbled, “No man who ever held the office of President would congratulate a friend on obtaining it.” John Quincy Adams had his own family problems. His oldest son, George Washington Adams, suffered severe mental problems and at 28 jumped to his death from a steamboat in Long Island Sound.
A bunch of Presidential children died tragically young. In 1853, just two months before Franklin Pierce took office, his young son Benjamin was killed before his eyes in a railroad accident. Mrs. Pierce was so devastated she didn’t even attend the inauguration. Mary Todd Lincoln never recovered from the death of her 11-year-old son, Willie. Quentin Roosevelt, the youngest son of Theodore Roosevelt, was killed in an air battle over France in 1918, the only Presidential son ever killed in action. After Calvin Coolidge, Jr. died from blood poisoning in 1924, his father wrote, “When he went, the power and the glory of the Presidency went with him, I don’t know why such a price was exacted for occupying the White House.” And, of course, John and Jackie Kennedy lost their infant son Patrick Bouvier Kennedy in 1963, just a few months before President Kennedy was assassinated.
Besides Quentin Roosevelt, other Presidential children went into battle. As a young boy, Frederick Grant accompanied his father onto the battlefield (I’m sure his mother was thrilled with that!) and was injured at Vicksburg at the age of 13! All of FDR’s sons served during World War II, as did John Eisenhower in Korea.
Of the current candidates, one of John McCain’s seven children is currently stationed in Iraq, a fact that McCain, to his credit, does not exploit. Asked why he rarely brings attention to his large family, McCain said it was intentional. “I just feel it's inappropriate for us to mention our children,” he told a reporter. “I wouldn’t want to seem like I’m trying to gain some kind of advantage. I just feel that it's a private thing.”
Chelsea Clinton grew up in the White House and despite her parents’ efforts to give her as normal a life as possible, she had to endure cruel attacks about her looks such as Rush Limbaugh’s repulsive 1992 “joke” when he showed a picture of her on his television show while talking about the White House dog. Chelsea seems to have weathered her White House years quite well, and if her mom gets elected she will obviously have a unique role in history as the only child of two Presidents. Barack Obama and his wife appropriately keep their daughters, ages 5 and 8, well out of the limelight. The Obama girls could conceivably find themselves coming of age in the White House, and I’m sorry for them that Margaret Truman won’t be around to offer some sage advice.
I wonder if a family like the Trumans could ever make it to the White House today. Harry Truman never went to college and he was certainly no millionaire. Margaret Truman never forgot her humble beginnings. “How can anybody be pretentious about something that is temporary?” she said about her White House years. “It never entered my mind that I or my parents were special people. We just weren’t.”