Take a look at the plaque to the right of the courthouse entrance. You can see the names of all the county judges names who were in office every time the courthouse was remodeled. There’s been seven county courthouses in Independence, the last six of which have stood on this site. But this one you’re standing in front of now, this is the building where Harry Truman’s political education was first put to practical use. He ended up serving ten years on the county court, two of them as the Eastern District Judge, and eight of them as the Presiding Judge. Doctor Andrew Dunar, in his book The Truman Scandals, talks about three main political lessons Truman learned during that time.
Number one: Truman came to recognize corruption and he learned to dealt with it in a way that left him his reputation. But he also came to understand that there would always be people who would seek public positions for private gain. For instance, there was a guy named Barr, who Truman picked for eastern judge, only to find out Barr was no good.
Here’s what Truman wrote about Barr: “I picked a West Pointer, a son of an honorable father, a man who should have had Washington, Lee, Jackson, Gustavus Adolphus, for his ideals, to associate with me in carrying out a program and I got—a dud, a weakling, no ideals, no nothing. He’s use his office for his own enrichment, he’s not true to his wife (and a man not honorable in his marital relations is not usually honorable in any other). He’d sell me or anyone else he’s associated with out for his own gain.”
Yet Truman also believed that one could survive in the midst of corruption, and, sometimes, even stop some of it.
So, Lesson number two: Truman learned to avoid corruption by working around people who were responsible for it.
For instance, he was able to work around the other two judges on the court. He remembered, “When I wanted something done I’d let Barr and Vrooman start a crap game and then introduce a long and technical order. Neither of them would have time to read it and over it would go. I got a lot of good legislation for Jackson Co. over while they shot craps. Both of them thought that public office is a means of personal enrichment.”
And, Lesson number three: Truman learned the need to take issues to the people, who would vindicate an honest and well-reasoned position even if ran counter to conventional political wisdom. For instance, when he sought a bond issue for the roads project, he recalled, “Pendergast told me that a County bond issue would not carry. I told him that if I told the voters how I would handle it, it would carry. I went to the people…and [the] bond issue carried by a three-fourths majority instead of the required two-thirds.”
Now, just because Harry learned these things didn’t mean he always applied these lessons well, but he still seemed to get ahead. And the office Truman used as county judge is still in this building and is open to the public if you’re interested. Right outside his office door is the next stop on your cell phone tour. To get to his office, go through the courthouse doors here to the cross hall and turn right (that’d be East). His office is all the way down at the end of the hall. If his office is open when you’re here, you can go in. Afterwards, or whenever you’re ready, if you’d like to continue this cell phone tour, push 208 on your phone.