Monday, March 20, 2023

Clifton Daniel talks about portraying his grandfather, President Truman, and his family’s complicated legacy

President Harry Truman (left) and his grandson, Clifton Truman Daniel. (Port City Daily photo / COURTESY THALIAN HALL)
President Harry Truman (left) and his grandson, Clifton Truman Daniel. (Port City Daily photo / COURTESY THALIAN HALL)

Later this month, Thalian Hall will produce a one-week showing of the “Give ‘em Hell, Harry,” a one man play about President Harry Truman.

The play, written by Samuel Gallu, makes use of Truman’s knack of succinct and highly quotable statements, including the impetus for the play’s title: on the 1948 campaign trail, a supporter yelled “Give ‘em hell, Harry,” to which Truman responded, “”I don’t give them hell, I just tell the truth about them and they think it’s hell.”

There have been many productions of the 1975 play, but this one is a little different – it stars Clifton Truman Daniel, the president’s grandson.

Daniel took some time to talk about preparing for the play and getting to the bottom of its complicated star, his grandfather, Harry Truman.

A family production

Clifton Truman Daniel will portray his grandfather, President Harry Truman, at Thalian Hall in Wilmington. (Port City Daily photo / COURTESY THALIAN HALL)
Clifton Truman Daniel will portray his grandfather, President Harry Truman, at Thalian Hall in Wilmington. (Port City Daily photo / COURTESY THALIAN HALL)

Daniel didn’t set out to play the part, but after he was asked by Thalian Hall’s Executive Director Tony Rivenbark, the idea began to grow on him. He was also encouraged by another presidential progeny, Margaret Hoover, President Herbert Hoover’s great granddaughter.

Daniel said he has been practicing the somewhat strange art of impersonating his own grandfather.

“My wife has been doing my hair and sticking the glasses on me. When I was doing it the other day — I’ve been listening to tapes of my grandfather’s voice — and there are similarities between the two of us. You can’t help it. You’ve got DNA, but trying to capture his Midwestern accent. So, I go in and out and it’s interesting because there are times when I hit it just right. It’s sort of spooky,” Daniel said.

“Like I can’t say a word or phrase that sounds like recordings that I’m hearing. Anyway, it is an interesting process that’s probably brings him back to life for me in a way that I did not anticipate,” he said. “It never occurred to me that I would do this when I was younger.”

The trademark style of Daniel’s grandfather – witty, but direct – gave Gallu plenty to work with.

“He gave me plenty of good lines to work at. He always had something to say. It’ll be interesting Gallu, you know, he found a lot of that put it in there,” Daniel said.

Modern resonance

Born in the 19th century, Harry Truman's life and the decisions he had to make, still feel modern, according to his grandson Clifton Truman Daniels. (Port City Daily photo / NATIONAL ARCHIVE)
Harry Truman in 1918. Born in the 19th century,Truman’s life and the decisions he had to make, still feel modern, according to his grandson Clifton Truman Daniels. (Port City Daily photo / NATIONAL ARCHIVE)

An understandable part of Daniel’s fascination with the play is – of course – the familial connection, but the role also feels surprisingly modern, Daniel said.

Truman’s reflection on his own life – including the great disparity between the rich and poor, the issue of race, and the specter of nuclear war – still have resonance.

“There’s one passage and I found, this was taken almost verbatim from the Senate record in 1937. My grandfather got up in front of the Senate and he said that he thought one of the greatest problems facing the United States at that time was the fact that we worship money over honor. And he said, ‘a billionaire is greater in the eyes of the people than the public servant who works in the public interest and it doesn’t matter that the billionaire rode to his wealth on the backs of little children and underpaid labor,’” Daniel said, “And I just read that thought and he used the word billionaire which I didn’t even think people existed. So, again, it just seemed to touch on today, just verbatim from his own speech.”

The second generation of the Klu Klux Klan, founded in 1921, expanded the black and white racism of its initial incarnation to include Catholics and Jews. (Port City Daily photo / PUBLIC DOMAIN - BRANFORD CLARKE)
1927 political cartoon demonizing Catholics, an attitude that did not sit well with Harry Truman. The second generation of the Klu Klux Klan, founded in 1921, expanded the black and white racism of its initial incarnation to include Catholics and Jews. (Port City Daily photo / PUBLIC DOMAIN – BRANFORD CLARKE)

Race was divisive issue in the Jim Crow era of 1924.  Notoriously, Truman was alleged to have joined the Klux Klux Klan. The Klan had powerful political sway in Jackson County, Missouri, and Truman need their help in an election for district judge.

The story goes, Daniel said, that Truman paid his $10 fee and arranged a meeting with the local leader. But, when he found out the Klan wouldn’t allow him to hire Jews or Catholics, Truman balked: many of the men under Truman’s command in World War I had been Irish Catholics, and his business partner from Kansas City, Eddie Jacobson, was Jewish.

“I don’t know if the story is true or not. But then grandpa doesn’t say in his memoirs, he just said that he had a talk with the man in charge. He went to the meetings and told them that they were wrong and racist and he wasn’t going to join them or support them,” Daniel said.

Daniels recounted a story told to him by the granddaughter of Jacobson.

“The Klan had threated Truman, so Eddie wouldn’t let him go alone. And so Grandpa went, and he did the courageous thing, but on the way out, the story goes, Grandpa told them, ‘you know, whoever organized your little group here must has to be a Jew, because only a Jew could sell you a dollar night-shirt for $16,” Daniel said.

The joke would not likely pass for politically correct in 2017, Daniel said.

“He wasn’t perfect, he was a human being,” Daniel said. “But it was clear to me, at least, that he knew right from wrong. So, it sounds like a bit of an anti-Semitic joke, maybe. But in context, he was loyal to his friend, to Eddie, to the men he served with in the war. The Klan was beginning to portray, to present themselves as a pro-America Christian group. I think he, I think grandpa saw through that.”

Hiroshima and Nagasaki

The blast cloud over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The iconic 'mushroom cloud' image has become synonymous with nuclear war, and President Harry Truman's legacy. (Port City Daily / NATIONAL ARCHIVE)
The blast cloud over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The iconic ‘mushroom cloud’ image has become synonymous with nuclear war, and President Harry Truman’s legacy. (Port City Daily / NATIONAL ARCHIVE)

As complicated as the story of Truman and American racial politics is, for Daniels, the most difficult and complex part of his grandfather’s legacy remains the use of nuclear weapons.

Truman learned about the nuclear weapons being developed only after Roosevelt died when he was briefed by the Secretary of War Harry Stimson. Daniel said he tried to empathize with the lack of time to prepare – or decide.

“And he says in his conversation with Roosevelt, ‘I only found out about it after you left us, and I had to decide. And Churchill said I should use it immediately to end the war, my own people were telling me we’d suffer a million casualties – millions on both sides – if we invaded the Japanese main islands. I don’t think we had any options,” Daniel said, channeling his grandfather. “We dropped the first one and we didn’t hear anything. We dropped the second one and they surrendered. Do I have any regrets or misgivings about it?”

In the script, Truman leaves that question – and it’s a big question for Daniel – unanswered.  Daniel has spent some time trying to find “the nuance in that decision.”

“Grandpa did indeed have misgivings and regrets about having to use the weapon, but he also said right at the same time that he would do it again in similar circumstances if he thought it would end the war. So think that’s a very complicated emotion.”

Daniel, who has become an advocate against the use of the proliferation or use of nuclear weapons, gets the question about his grandfather’s choice frequently.

“I don’t exactly hate the question – but I’ll say it’s frustrating because I have just said what he said, which was that he did it to end the  war quickly and primarily save the lives of American servicemen. He said it over and over again, he wrote it again and again, he never changed his mind on it. He never spoke to me about it, but I don’t think he would have told me anything different,” Daniel.

The family legacy

It’s a single scene in the play, when Truman confronts – open-endedly – his choice, the only use in history of nuclear weapons in an act of war. Daniel said he has put a great deal of effort into getting the “nuance” of that scene right, but for him it is about more than just nailing the performance. It is also his own family legacy.

Sadako Sasaki in 1954. Sadako survived the 1945 nuclear weapon attack on Hiroshima, but died ten years later, at the age of 12, from the long-term effects of radiation. (Port City Daily photo / PUBLIC DOMAIN)
Sadako Sasaki in 1954. Sadako survived the 1945 nuclear weapon attack on Hiroshima, but died ten years later, at the age of 12, from the long-term effects of radiation. (Port City Daily photo / PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Daniel own thinking about his grandfather’s decision changed when he met the brother of Sadako Sasaki, known from Eleanor Coerr’s “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes.” Sadako was two years old when Truman ordered the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. She survived the attack, but developed Leukemia from the radiation exposure, dying in 1955. Over the course of her short life, Sadako folded over 1,000 paper cranes.

Daniel met Sadako’s brother Mashiro; the two were both accompanied by their sons. Masahiro’s son Yuji had with him the last crane Sadako had folded. He showed Daniel the crane and asked him to visit memorials in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Daniel went, and found himself surprised at how welcome he was made to feel by the Japanese. Now Daniel finds himself concerned with correcting the one-sided view of history he grew up with.

“The whole point is to make connections and work together, to portray the facts as they were, to look at both sides. In my history books, the ones I read in school, we just dropped the bombs and the war ended. That was it. There wasn’t anything about the Japanese perspective – let alone from the Japanese perspective – about what they did or who they were or how they saw things,” Daniel said.

‘Give ‘Em Hell, Harry’

Clifton Daniel perform the role of Harry Truman from Oct. 12 through the 22. All performances will held in the Ruth and Bucky Stein Theatre at Thalian Hall, except for the Friday, Oct. 20, show, which will be performed on the main stage. Tickets and information are available here.

Related Articles