Part of the fallout from the violent and seditious end of the Trump administration concerns whether Donald Trump should receive the lavish government benefits paid to our other former presidents.
The issue was raised with particular force during the impeachment process that followed the January 6 uprising.
The discussion then turned to whether Trump’s conviction in a Senate trial, unlikely as it was, would nullify its benefits. Indeed, one of the justifications for the second impeachment was to remove Trump from government roles.
Legal experts, however, concluded that his post-presidential benefits could only be revoked if he was removed from office while still in office.
The impeachment article was not even submitted to the Senate until January 25, after Joe Biden, Trump’s successor, had already been sworn in, and Trump was acquitted afterwards anyway. Its benefits therefore seem secure.
But the discussion raised another question: How did former presidents end up in the queue for post-presidential largesse in the first place?
The answer takes us back to the 1950s and a series of lies Harry Truman told about his own financial situation.
Truman has made it known that he entered presidential retirement in 1953 on the brink of misery. His speech culminated in the enactment of the Former Presidents Act in 1958, which gave this elite cadre lifelong benefits.
The truth about Truman, however, is somewhat different. Completely different.
“The point is, when he left the White House, Truman was in charge,” says Paul Campos, a law professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who did what no Truman historian seems to have taken. worth doing – examine the financial situation in the Truman Archives in Independence, Missouri. “He wasn’t just comfortably well off. He was rich with a capital ‘R’ and well in the 1%.”
It is getting worse, as Campos recounted in Lawyers, Guns & Money, a must-have group blog where he contributes, and in a July 24 article in New York Magazine.
Campos reports that Truman accumulated some of his wealth by apparently embezzling large sums of money from the U.S. government, in the form of a $ 50,000 non-accounting, tax-free annual expense account provided by Congress for the first two years. of his elective mandate (1949-1953). At the time, income over $ 100,000 was taxed at a rate of around 90%, making untaxed funds much more valuable to Truman.
Although Truman did not have to officially document the use of the account, it was not intended as a personal slush fund. But that’s how Truman used it. In a 1953 draft will that Campos found in the archives, Truman informed his wife, Bess, of a treasury of silver in a safe deposit box. “It came out of the $ 50,000 expense account which was not attributable to taxes,” he wrote. “It should be bonded except what you need for immediate use.”
After the first two years, Congress made the expense account taxable if it was used for personal purposes.
The truth about Truman’s finances should lead to a new review of the Old Presidents Act, which was not without controversy even before that. A bipartisan benefit reducing measure was passed by both houses of Congress in 2016, but was vetoed by Barack Obama, who said it would interfere with contractual arrangements already made by former presidents living.
The benefits of FPA are not small. They include an annual pension indexed to inflation linked to the salaries of former Cabinet secretaries ($ 221,400 this year); office space across the US and staff compensation up to $ 150,000 per year; up to $ 1 million per year in security and travel reimbursements, plus an additional $ 500,000 for former First Ladies; lifetime protection of the secret services; and health coverage for ex-presidents who have accumulated at least five years in the federal employee health insurance system (so Trump and Jimmy Carter, who have not reached the five-year threshold, are not eligible) .
According to the right-wing National Taxpayers Union Foundation, which advocates the cancellation of most of these benefits for all ex-presidents, the government has spent around $ 4 million a year on our four living ex-presidents, not counting Trump. .
The smallest amount, around $ 480,000, was budgeted in fiscal year 2021 for Jimmy Carter, who tends to live on a small scale; Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama are all budgeted over $ 1.1 million. But all of them are multimillionaires and able to earn a handsome income from writing, speaking, serving on boards of directors, and other projects proposed to your average former president.
Truman’s apparent modesty during his presidential retirement is commonly used as a rebuke to his money-hungry successors. “Barack Obama uses his presidency to cash, but Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter refused”, headlined an article on this theme by Zaid Jilani in Intercept.
Jilani quoted Truman, approvingly, saying, âI could never agree to any transaction, no matter how respectable, that would market the prestige and dignity of the presidential office. “
The same line appears in a 2007 New York Times and Boston Globe editorial by Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby, twisting Bill Clinton for accepting lavish speech fees and headline: “The Obsolete Integrity of Harry Truman.” To his credit, after reading the New York Magazine article from Campos, Jacoby published a mea culpa in the Globe, titled “Harry Truman Fooled Us All”.
Campos attributes much of this canonization of Truman as a paragon of modesty to historian David McCullough, who in his 1992 biography etched in the public consciousness the image of Harry and Bess Truman retreating to Independence, Missouri, without no government support other than “other than his army pension of $ 112.56 per month.”
But Truman had pushed this story forward before leaving the White House, and more assiduously after his retirement. As Campos reports, in an interview with Edward R. Murrow (for which CBS apparently paid Truman $ 25,000), Truman complained that “the United States government is turning its budding rulers. They’re just allowed to go. to starve “.
He claimed that only his inheritance of the family farm stood between him and the scarcity: âIf I hadn’t inherited a property that finally paid off, I would be taking over right now.
It turns out that he had not inherited the farm – it had been seized while he was a senator. However, he had bought it back, presumably in the hope that the land value would skyrocket as the suburb expanded, which happened.
Truman entered the civil service without much money; when he was elected to the Senate in 1934, he was still paying off the debts of a bankrupt haberdashery company in his country. But his compensation as vice president and chairman of Franklin D. Roosevelt placed him among America’s financial elite.
The presidential salary of $ 100,000, which Congress established in time for its elected term in 1949, would be worth $ 1.5 million today. In contemporary terms, it was lavish – as Campos observes, it matched the salary of Joe DiMaggio, then the highest-paid baseball player in baseball.
That year, the median household income in America was $ 3,000. Compared to today’s household median of $ 78,500, Truman’s salary would be worth around $ 2.6 million today.
In the 1953 draft will that Campos reviewed, Truman listed assets of $ 650,000. This included $ 250,000 in US Savings Bonds, $ 150,000 in cash, $ 250,000 in land, and a book contract he estimated at $ 100,000. Adjusted for inflation, it would be worth around $ 6.6 million today. But as Campos calculates, the threshold for the top 1% from the previous period was $ 125,000; today it is $ 11.1 million.
“To be as wealthy today compared to other Americans as Truman was in 1953,” Campos writes, “a person would have to have a net worth of around $ 58 million.”
As for Truman’s circumspection in exploiting his post-presidency, he has listed himself on his federal tax returns as a “writer-speaker-farmer.” The contract for his memoir, which began to hit shelves in 1956, was $ 600,000 (over $ 6 million in current terms). Truman criticized House Majority Leader John McCormack (D-Mass.) That although he gave Dwight Eisenhower a tax break for Eisenhower’s war memoirs, Eisenhower did not reciprocate after that he became president.
Despite all of this evidence found in Truman’s tax returns, which are available online, and in the archives, Truman’s image as a modest individual living without resources persists – not only in McCullough’s biography but others by academic historians.
His post-presidential deprivation is as central to Truman’s identity as the presence of the sign “The Buck Stops Here” on his Oval Office. His biographers, not to mention the political commentators who cite him as a model of integrity, have not done their homework.
Campos suggests that one of the reasons his true situation has not been examined is the aura of tenacity that surrounds him to this day – in the recently published C-SPAN survey of historians, he ranks sixth in esteem, after Lincoln, Washington, Roosevelts and Eisenhower, despite a record that could rightly be considered mediocre. But that’s hardly an excuse for the pink coloring of its reputation.
It is also true that some of Truman’s private financial disclosures were not available to researchers until Bess Truman’s papers were unsealed in 2011. on their own, “Campos told me.
As to why Truman so feverishly sought more wealth despite his more than comfortable condition, Campos surmises he was haunted by a gnawing sense of economic precariousness resulting from his trade failures and a long life without money before Washington.
Even without breaking through the Truman myth, the time to review the Old Presidents Act is near. In today’s world, pensions and grants given to former presidents are just a sauce on their healthy personal fortunes. Giving more money to Donald Trump, given his own wealth and post-presidential behavior, would be an outrage. But the scandal existed long before it entered the scene.
Michael Hiltzik is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.
Â© 2021 Los Angeles Times. Visit latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.