Say what you might about Donald Trump’s response to Meryl Streep, such a personal rebuke from the highest office is not entirely unprecedented in the catalogue of presidential history. Take the time Harry Truman threatened to pulverize a Washington Post reporter over a negative review of his daughter’s Mozart recital.
On December 5th, 1950, Margaret Truman, the 27 year-old daughter of then President Harry and his wife Bess, gave a voice recital at Constitutional Hall, in front of a crowd of 3,000, which included the president and his wife, British Prime Minister Clement Attlee, and Paul Hume, a music critic for the Washington Post.
The next morning, the President was both shocked to find a disparaging review from Hume in the Post’s music section:
“Miss Truman is a unique American phenomenon with a pleasant voice of little size and fair quality. She is extremely attractive on stage. Yet Miss Truman cannot sing very well. She is flat a good deal of the time–more so last night than at any time we have heard her in past years. It is an extremely unpleasant duty to record such unhappy facts about so honestly appealing a person. But as long as Miss Truman sings as she has for three years, and does today, we seem to have no recourse unless it is to omit comment on her programs altogether.”
In a matter of moments, a furious Truman had penned the following letter and sent it to Hume in an envelope bearing his own presidential stamp. The letter read:
I’ve just read your lousy review of Margaret’s concert. I’ve come to the conclusion that you are an “eight ulcer man on four ulcer pay.”
It seems to me that you are a frustrated old man who wishes he could have been successful. When you write such poppy-cock as was in the back section of the paper you work for it shows conclusively that you’re off the beam and at least four of your ulcers are at work.
Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!
Pegler*, a gutter snipe, is a gentleman alongside you. I hope you’ll accept that statement as a worse insult than a reflection on your ancestry.
Angered at this stinging rebuke, Hume was prepared to publish the letter in the Post, until editor Philip Graham nixed the idea, stating that he had received several of Truman’s spiteful letters himself, and refused to publish any of them. The document eventually found its way into the hands of a reporter at the Washington Times, who gladly published it, generating uproar directed at both Hume and Truman.
There are many circumstantial distinctions between Truman’s letter and the Trump/Streep dust-up: one an overprotective father dishing via a personal letter, the other using a public platform—instantly accessible to millions—to complain about political criticism; granted it was in response to a debatable accusation against him, and a lecture that many Americans outside the elite bubble of Hollywood found mildly patronizing.
While the reproves of both presidents are sophomoric in nature, one can only imagine the media maelstrom that would arise if Trump had chosen a direct, private message to Ms. Streep via Twitter to express his displeasure along with promise of black eyes; perhaps the Twitter account suspension that many on the left have prayed for.
There’s more to the story of Truman and Hume, however. According to Hume’s obituary in the LA Times, eight years after the incident, while on a visit to St. Louis, Hume called up Truman, and visited the office of the retired president whom he had never met personally. The president played the piano for Hume, and that night, the two sat together for a concert by soprano Maria Callas. They remained friendly from then on.
Could the same reconciliation be possible in our present quandary? While no one is holding their breath on this one, as we’ve learned from the past election cycle, anything’s possible.
*Westbrook Pegler: another Post columnist on the receiving end of Truman’s disapproval.