Monday, August 21, 2006


For the past few weeks I've been listening to an unabridged recording of Truman while I work in the garden -- an interesting experience after having read Sherry Schirmer's brilliant A City Divided.

I'm at the part in the book where Truman goes to the Senate, so I've just listened for an hour or two about his ascent by way of the Pendergast Machine. It's interesting. At times I find myself actually admiring Boss Tom because, unlike the club-members who now run our city, he managed to break more than a few crumbs off the corruption cake for the poor. (Can you picture someone like Steve Glorioso helping down-and-out neighborhood schlubs score decent jobs? Those days are long gone, my friend.)

On the other hand, I'm irritated with how cavalierly McCullough deals with the issue of race in his Pulitzer-winning biography. He throws in a few sentences about how the Pendergast crew -- the Goats, as they were known -- deigned to dole out a favor or two to Negroes every so often, which was apparently unprecedented in this old Jim Crow town. But other than that the historian pretty much ignores the racism that has shaped the landscape of this city more than any other force.

McCullough writes almost adoringly of the wildness of this city in the early 20th Century -- the gambling and prostitution and drug dealing that was so accessible. Meanwhile, Schirmer bears down on this with cutting insight. She shows that Pendergast and his cronies calculated the availability of these nefarious delights so as to contain them to the black part of town, which was itself detained by racist covenents, as well as straight-up terrorism (when blacks dared move to white neighborhoods, their homes were bombed). No mention of this by McCullough. Indeed, he reports that Kansas City was safer than ever during the Pendergast years.

And when recounting the brief ascent of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, he focuses on their anti-Catholic nature, not their lynching ways. He scolds Truman for paying $10 bucks to join the group, and then lauds him a paragraph later for backing out.

And when reporting Truman's liberal use of the N-word as a young man, McCollough so refrains from judgement that he seems to almost adore of his subject's a quaint country ways. When I heard those parts I found myself wondering, How will we get from here to the integration of the armed forces?

We're divided in so many ways. We even have different histories.

But, as Truman himself liked to say -- quoting Andrew Jackson, I think -- to the victor go the spoils.

(And, of course, it helps to cheat.)


Northeast Guy said...

Another thing about Pendergast: at least all that patronage resulted in things actually getting done.

joe said...

This is true, too. The new breed of corruption doesn't seem to have that part of it down, either.

Tony said...

Awesome book review. I don't really care that Truman used the N-word and I'm sure the thousands of Japanese people he incinerated wouldn't mind either if they weren't the first civilians to have the power of the sun unleashed on them.

jdoublep said...

nice blurb. "city divided" is next on my read list after "City of the Future: a narrative history of Kansas City 1850-1950"