As 2014 draws to a close, I'm enjoying David McCullough's masterful biography of Truman, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1993.
Since Truman was president well before I was born, most of what I've learned about him over the years, prior to now, came in conversations with my dad. My father loves to talk history and politics, especially presidential politics, which is likely where I get some of my fascination with the subject.
One of the things I remember my dad telling me most clearly was how strange it felt for him at first to think of Harry S. Truman as president. When Truman became president in April 1945, on the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, my father had no memory of any other president ever. FDR had been elected to an unprecedented and never to be repeated four terms (though he would serve only three months of the fourth term). He was first elected in 1932, the year both of my parents were born. Mom was a newly turned 13 and Dad 12 almost 13 when FDR died and Truman became president. No wonder he had a hard time fathoming that anybody else could have the job! That little anecdote has been lodged in my memory for years. Interestingly, McCullough spends a lot of time explaining how Truman himself (in his first dazed reaction) had a hard time thinking of himself as president too.
Maybe because my own daughter is now 12, I've found myself thinking through other "12s" in our family history. It's interesting and revealing to think about U.S. presidential history in terms of the youth of different generations. My daughter, of course, is 12 during the second term of Barack Obama, the first African American president. When I was 12, Ronald Regan had just been elected for the first time (he would be president my entire adolescence), though Jimmy Carter was actually in office through the end of the year I turned 12. When my husband was 12, Richard Nixon had just been inaugurated for his second term, a year prior to his resignation of the presidency (a political environment to which my husband still attributes much of his own attitudes toward and ideas about politics). My middle sister turned 12 the year Nixon resigned. My oldest sister turned 12 less than half a year before Lyndon B. Johnson announced he would not run for re-election, and my brother turned 12 the next year, just two months before Nixon was first elected.
My mother-in-law, five years younger than my parents, would have been 12 the year that Harry S. Truman was inaugurated for his first full term (but essentially his second) following his improbable election victory over Thomas Dewey in 1948. My husband's aunt, ten years his junior, was 12 the year that John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
My maternal grandmother turned 12 in 1921, the year that Warren G. Harding was inaugurated (in March, as they did back then). My maternal grandfather turned 12 in 1924, the year that Calvin Coolidge delivered the first radio broadcast from the White House. My paternal grandmother would have turned 12 in 1917, the year Woodrow Wilson was elected for his second term and the U.S. went to war (for the first time) with Germany (a war in which Harry Truman would serve as an artillery captain.) My paternal grandfather turned 12 in 1913, the year Wilson was inaugurated for the first time, succeeding William Howard Taft.
I find this so interesting that I may go back even further and figure out who was president when my great-grandparents were 12!