Entrance Into Politics

Truman turned to the Pendergasts for help.

Truman turned to the Pendergasts for help. Jim Pendergast, Mike`s son, persuaded his father to give Truman permission to enter a four-way Democratic primary for an eastern Jackson County judgeship, which was actually a job to supervise county roads and buildings. Mike refused to support Truman. In addition, one of the other candidates was supported by the Ku Klux Klan, a semi-secret, often violent organization that championed white supremacy. Truman was advised to join the Klan, but when he objected to its discriminatory policies against blacks, Jews, and Roman Catholics, his entrance fee was returned. Nonetheless, by campaigning on his war record and Missouri background, Truman won the primary and the general election. In January 1923 he was sworn into his first public office. A year later the Trumans` only child, Mary Margaret, was born.

County Judge

As one of three county judges

As one of three county judges, Truman had little authority to repair the bad roads, the crumbling public buildings, or the depleted county treasury. Nevertheless, he reduced his inherited debt of more than $1,000,000 by $600,000, and he improved some of the roads. In his spare time he enrolled in the Kansas City Law School, participated in the local Masonic Lodge, and maintained his interest in the National Guard, eventually becoming a colonel.

As his two-year term drew to a close

As his two-year term drew to a close, Truman stood for renomination in the Democratic primary. By this time, however, the party was badly split, and the Ku Klux Klan helped bring about his only election defeat. For the next two years he sold automobile club memberships and ventured into the banking business.

Presiding Judge

Political machines

Political machines, such as the Pendergast organization, were common to both parties in the 1920s. They were based on the spoils system, in which winning politicians gave government jobs to those loyal party members who had helped them get elected. Using government jobs as rewards, politicians created efficient (and often almost unstoppable) vote-getting machines, in which party loyalty was often more important than doing any work. Without local machine support a political career was extremely difficult. Political machines were especially powerful in Missouri. In 1926 Tom Pendergast, Mike`s other son, supported Truman for a four-year term as presiding judge of the county with full authority over county roads, buildings, and taxes. Although the Pendergast machine was strong, with his characteristic bluntness, Truman told Pendergast he would fire any man who failed to do an honest job. Finding the road system a shambles, the courthouse in ruins, and tax money in the pockets of Pendergast supporters, Truman began wholesale firings. He appointed an independent road commission, hired reputable workers, secured out-of-state bank loans at low interest rates, and ended graft in building contracts. He toured the country to find the best-designed courthouse. He found it in Shreveport, Louisiana, hired its architect, and floated a successful bond issue to pay for a similar building in Kansas City. In 1929 Mike Pendergast died, and his two sons replaced him. Truman`s influence was enhanced, and he was reelected to a second four-year term as presiding county judge.

By 1934 the Pendergast machine was the

By 1934 the Pendergast machine was the tool of gangsters who promoted gambling, vice rings, bootlegging, police bribes, and murder. Truman, plodding along on his honest road program and courthouse project, earned the respect of his constituents, who may have been impressed by the novelty of an honest official. However, a presiding judge was traditionally limited to two terms, and Truman appeared to have no hope of a political future until Tom Pendergast asked Truman to run for the U.S. Senate.

United States Senator

After a long

After a long, hard battle, Truman soundly defeated his Republican opponent. Truman capitalized on the popularity of the New Deal, Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt`s innovative domestic legislation to counteract the effects of the Great Depression. On January 3, 1935, Truman was sworn in as the junior senator from Missouri.

Truman`s arrival in Washington was met

Truman`s arrival in Washington was met with disdain. His colleagues regarded him as a tool of the Pendergast machine, which the White House was already investigating. Roosevelt believed that Truman would probably be implicated. Fortunately, Truman`s common sense and knowledge of government and history impressed two of the Senate`s most influential men. One was vice president John Nance Garner, and the other was Arthur H. Vandenberg, Republican senator from Michigan. With their aid, Truman was named to two important committees, the Appropriations Committee and the Interstate Commerce Committee. Working on a subcommittee of the latter with Senator Warren Austin, he wrote the Truman-Austin bill that created the Civil Aeronautics Board.

Truman also joined the subcommittee on

Truman also joined the subcommittee on railroads, becoming vice-chairman and, later, acting chairman. Steeping himself in the history of the industry, he conducted hearings until early 1939. Despite pressures from powerful railroad companies, including the Missouri Pacific Railroad, he recommended major regulatory changes that were embodied in the Transportation Act of 1940.


Because he was a consistent New Deal senator

Because he was a consistent New Deal senator whom Roosevelt did not have to coerce and because the Pendergast investigation was not completed, Truman was ignored by the White House. When the investigation ended, it disclosed widespread corruption and brutality, but it failed to reveal a single act of wrongdoing in Truman`s career. In the light of Roosevelt`s hatred of Pendergast, Truman could have seriously damaged his career when, learning of Pendergast`s indictment, he told a reporter, Tom Pendergast has always been my friend, and I don`t desert a sinking ship.

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