OPINION: THE IDLE AMERICAN – On the matter of ‘Buck-Stopping’

Published 12:58 am Wednesday, February 9, 2022

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Jokes and stories attributed to US Presidents–true or not–have to make some of them blush with embarrassment.

File drawers of the late President Harry S. Truman must have bulged nigh unto disintegration. He was arguably the most plain-spoken president of the 20th century. (Admittedly, in the 21st century, he probably would have been a distant second to President Donald Trump.)

Truman may have been the first leader to call one critic a “screwball.” He was the only president to authorized use of an atomic bomb. Further, he fiercely defended his wife and daughter (Bess and Margaret, respectively) upon their receiving any criticism and refused numerous offers following his presidency that would have made him rich.

President Truman took no fancy to finery and received only a military pension in retirement. One year in the late ‘50s, his income was only about $13,000.

He and Bess retired to their modest home, where he took long walks, wrote regularly and observed construction of the Truman Library.

On his presidential desk was the carved motto for which he was best known: THE BUCK STOPS HERE, provided by a Federal reformatory inmate in El Reno, OK.

Speaking at a Grange convention in Kansas, Mrs. Truman and a friend were in the audience. In his speech, he said, “…One thing I know—farming means manure, manure, manure, manure, manure and more manure.” Mrs. Truman and a friend were in the audience.

Upon hearing the word “manure” repeatedly, Bess’ friend whispered, “Why on earth don’t you get Harry to say ‘fertilizer’?” (It is noted that at numerous speaking engagements, he was urged by hosts to tell “the manure story.”)

Bess answered, “Heavens, it has taken me 25 years to get him to say ‘manure’.”

Fast forward to the 1970s. It was a Friday night when my plane was landing at the Kansas City Airport. Little had gone smoothly since take-off. Sales folks, probably eager to get home after a week on the road, were short-tempered. On top of that, we had a bumpy ride around a thunderstorm, delaying our landing by an hour.

The way things were going, I feared that I’d be late for a dinner speech I was to make that night in Independence, MO.

I quietly fretted, figuring a taxi would be hard to come by, rental car lines would be long and the traffic, a mess.

Sadly, I was right. However, there was one taxi left, and it had seen better days. The driver’s windshield wiper worked, but the other didn’t. A back glass was cracked, and two fenders dented.

Small peeling letters on the front doors provided ID: “Buck’s Taxi Service.” The diminutive driver, hair amess and whiskers long, had that I-don’t-really-want-to-pick-up-another-fare look in his eye.

“Are you Buck?” I asked. He nodded, sure that he could handle the traffic and rain easily enough to get me to Independence before the 7 p.m. event.

I felt relieved. His confidence was unbounded.

I figured the spring protruding from the seat next to mine could be avoided, and that the a/c wasn’t that big a deal, since it was late October.

Buck was in and out of traffic; I asked him if his real name was “Parnelli.” Sure enough, we arrived in Independence with time to spare.

Learning that my engagement was near the Truman Library, I asked him if we might drive by, so I could at least respond affirmatively if asked whether I’d seen it.

Buck agreed, saying he would drive slowly around the national landmark.

Since there was still time available to snap a picture, I asked Buck to stop for a moment. He refused, however, saying smartly, “The Buck doesn’t stop here.” Shaggy dog story or not, this opening allowed me to engage the audience quickly. It was a memorable Friday night.

   Dr. Newbury, a longtime university president, continues writing and speaking. This account is from his book, Life by the Seat of the Pants, now in its second printing. Contact: newbury@speakerdoc.com. Phone: 817-447-3872.