The Buck Stops Here

Did Harry Really Give ’Em Hell in Bremerton?

Longtimers in Kitsap County swear the president’s rallying cry originated here. Scholars say otherwise.

By Allecia Vermillion December 23, 2019 Published in the January/February 2020 issue of Seattle Met

Image: Tom Dougherty

On June 10, 1948, President Harry S. Truman stepped onto the second-floor balcony of Bremerton’s grand Elks Temple. Below him, ebullient masses jammed the downtown intersection of Fifth and Pacific. The 33rd president was scrapping for a re-election that seemed rather unlikely. (Remember that famed “Dewey Defeats Truman” newspaper headline?) And yet he launched into a barn burner guaranteed to incite this working-class crowd.

“You know, this Congress is interested in the welfare of the better classes,” cried Truman. “The poor man is having to pay out all his money for rent and for clothing and for food at prices that are certainly outrageous.”

That phrase prompted an impassioned holler from a man unseen in the throng. Nearly three decades later, for the nation’s bicentennial, the Bremerton Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks would commemorate that moment by gifting the city a bronze plaque, which it affixed to one of the white terra cotta–clad columns on its own building. Today, it still reads: “While making a speech from the balcony above, brother Harry S. Truman first heard the words ‘Give ’em Hell, Harry,’ shouted from the enthusiastic crowd assembled in this intersection.”

But…did he?

The story likely has roots in Truman’s own memoir, Mr. Citizen, says Sam Rushay, historian and supervisory archivist at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri. The president’s autobiography, published seven years after he left office, recalls its author being in the Northwest, “holding an enthusiastic meeting” when “some man with a great big voice” shouted the phrase “from the galleries.” According to the library’s official transcript of the president’s remarks that day, though, this fervent fan actually called out “Pour it on, Harry.” Two years later, historian Alfred Steinberg’s account of Truman’s life placed the exchange in Albuquerque. Another Truman account by David McCullough—basically the Meryl Streep of the historical biographer community—traces this phrase back to joint remarks between Truman and Vice President Alben Barkley.

The Kitsap Sun’s own contemporaneous account says someone yelled “Lay it on, Harry!” Bremerton’s eminent historian, Fredi Perry, believes local newspapers of the day hesitated to report a scandalous four-letter word like “hell.” She sides emphatically with the plaque.

Whatever the phrase’s origin, nobody realized it would be forever linked to the failed haberdasher turned commander in chief’s pugnacious identity. Today, TV cameras capture unintended historic moments with unequivocal precision—future generations won’t debate that it was South Carolina congressman Joe Wilson who bellowed “you lie!” while President Barack Obama addressed Congress.

In his 14 years as a reporter at the Kitsap Sun, Josh Farley has revisited this topic many a time, interviewing locals who say they witnessed the exchange as young children; decades ago, two different men each told the paper he was the one who yelled the fated phrase. Sure, time has embellished some people’s memories, says Farley. But Bremerton has a preponderance of evidence other towns don’t—nobody in Albuquerque has ever bothered to put up a plaque. “I’ve never heard another good theory anywhere else.”

Plus, says Farley, the story absolutely tracks with Bremerton’s persona, especially back then. “These are folks that won the war in the Pacific. Bremerton was a blue-collar town that would have uttered a bawdy word.”

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