Merriman Smith wrote five books about presidents and the White House. After he died in 1970, his son, Tim Smith, put together a sixth book that was a compendium of Smith’s writings.
Look elsewhere for deep analysis of what was going on in the White House or in national politics. Smith’s books are breezy and anecdotal, and full of life. His second book, 1948’s A President Is Many Men, conveyed an insightful anecdote about President Harry Truman’s personality readers could not learn from official announcements. The anecdote also speaks to Smith’s sources and enterprise.
During a time of White House crisis in 1946, Smith wrote, Truman took a bit of time off to watch a short movie documentary about the presidency. The opening scene showed a young mother rolling a baby carriage past the White House. She stopped, gazed at the North Portico, and looked down at her infant son.
“The narrator of the movie intoned, ‘Yes, she realizes that her child, like anybody in this great country, can become President!’”
“Mr. Truman, sitting in the dark, chuckled and nudged his wife who was beside him.
“ ‘I’m living proof of that,’” he said.”
The story says a lot about Truman’s personality, how he viewed himself and how he viewed his ascendance upon Franklin Roosevelt’s death to a job Smith was convinced he never wanted. But any reporter would want to know: Who told Smith what the President said to the First Lady in a darkened room? The book doesn’t say.
Smith never got used to Truman’s early-rising habits. In 1949, when Truman was vacationing in Key West, Fla., Smith showed up at a surprise morning news conference “in blue pajamas with burgundy spots,” the official transcript noted. “Have you ever seen anything like the dead still walking!” said someone not identified in the transcript. “I stayed up all night working on official papers,” Smitty explained.
Here’s a gem of a Truman quote, from an exit interview he gave to Smith in 1952, a few weeks before he left office:
“Mr. Truman, when asked whether he would need protection after he leaves the White House, snorted and said, ‘If any nut tries to shoot me, I’ll take the pistol away from him, ram it down his throat and pull the trigger.’”
Truman had a reputation for salty language. You have to figure Smith omitted a couple of colorful words from that quote.
It’s hard to imagine any reporter today getting such a quote out of any politician, let alone a sitting president. It’s one reason Smith was so good. It’s also hard to imagine any president other than Truman saying such a thing. President Obama sure wouldn’t, even amid the fuss over the Secret Service right now.