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JANUARY 31, 2008 TAGS:
By Steve Goldstein
More than 60 years ago, Margaret Truman, who died Jan. 29 in Chicago, was the prototype of the First Child. An only child of a president, Harry Truman, in a White House of almost unimaginable accessibility, she came of age in the dawning of a postwar media boom. Her Truman show would be followed by Amy Carter, an only child by virtue of the age difference between her and her three brothers, and by Chelsea Clinton. But Mary Margaret “Margie” Truman Daniel was the embodiment of the first draft of the peculiar history of these unluckiest of lucky progeny.
She was nearly kidnapped at 6 years old when her father was rising in the Pendergast political machine in Kansas City. She lived in the White House while she attended George Washington University, a few blocks away, embarked on an undistinguished singing career, acted and worked as a broadcaster, then married an esteemed New York Times-man, Clifton Daniel, and made herself into a writer of biographies (including one of her dad) and of best-selling mystery novels set in Washington’s salons and official buildings.
Amazingly, Margaret Truman appeared on the cover of Time magazine, on Feb. 26, 1951, billboarding a story about the budding First Daughter’s career in entertainment and letters, and marking the first time a presidential offspring shared this distinction with a parent. The George Bushes later repeated this feat, but Margaret had to earn her cover.
Truman, a throwback to a bygone era of relative innocence, presaged what later would befall the adolescently awkward Carter and Clinton, the randy Ford boys, the marrying Johnsons and Nixons and the party-hearty Bush twins. The Kennedy children, Caroline and John-John, existed in a universe all their own for emphasizing the youth of their father and adding to the charm of Camelot.
Every Truman obituary recounts the signal moment when her father’s office intruded most spectacularly into her personal life: She debuted as a coloratura with the Detroit Symphony in a 1947 radio broadcast, drawing mixed reviews, then appeared live before 15,000 people at California’s Hollywood Bowl. Over the next few years, she sang in more than 30 cities and signed a recording contract.
In December 1950, however, she performed at Constitution Hall in Washington and evoked in the Washington Post music critic a sense of melancholia. “She cannot sing very well,” Paul Hume wrote, “she is flat a good deal of the time,” and, he concluded, she had no “professional finish.”
Her father, who earned his “Give ’Em Hell, Harry” nickname in so many ways, took pen to paper and reviewed Hume’s performance. “I have just read your lousy review,” the president explained. “I have never met you, but if I do, you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!”
Margaret was mortified. At first, she refused to believe that her father had written the letter, which was printed in full on the front page of the tabloid Washington News. Later, she praised her father for his “chivalry,” but according to presidential biographer David McCullough, letters and telegrams “ran nearly two to one against him, and many, from mothers and fathers for whom the incident could only be seen in the context of the tragedy in Korea, voiced a deep-seated outrage….”
What crucible was this for a 26-year-old woman embarking on her career? It makes some of the youthful foibles of the kids who would follow Margaret Truman into the White House look like trifles. But this is what sets her apart from the others and why she seems of a piece with an era in which the president could stroll alone across Pennsylvania Avenue to his office in the White House and when jokes about the Secret Service following Margaret on dates were just that – jokes.
In fact, other than the fateful concert performance and her father’s public hissy fit, Margaret Truman’s life was lived away from the White House, at a remove from the trappings of the presidency. She engaged in a series of working endeavors that established a reputation quite apart from that of her father.
Ask those who have read the genteel, heavily scenic and lightly plotted entertainments in her “Capital Crime Series” – all the way from Murder in the White House through Murder at the National Gallery to Murder on K Street – and they will seldom connect the handsome gray-haired author with the blue-green eyes with the bespectacled 33rd president and commander in chief who unleashed the atomic bomb.
Margaret Truman emerged from a time when First Children were sometimes seen and almost never heard. Though she did grow up in the White House, her public persona was such a novelty that she unwittingly changed the rules for all the children who would come after.
And now, in retrospect, it seems that the jibes aimed at Amy Carter for her perceived wiftiness or the cruel jabs at Chelsea Clinton’s teenage looks could easily have merited more than a parental punch in the nose. President Truman’s defense of his only child thus appears so quaint, so restrained, that we can only marvel at an innocent era when Margie Truman was allowed to be human. So much like every other young woman in America, only she was one who could leave her dorm at George Washington University, stroll a few blocks and have dinner at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Steve Goldstein is a frequent contributor to Obit.
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