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  • County Judge

    Jim Pendergast
    Jim Pendergast

    More than once, Truman had said he might like to try his hand at politics. In late 1921, he got his chance. Jim Pendergast and his father, Mike, asked him to run for the Jackson County Court. Truman was elected Eastern Judge and later served two terms as Presiding Judge (the chief administrator of the county government). Although he was picked by the local political machine and remained loyal to Mike and Tom Pendergast, he managed to sidestep the political corruption endemic to county politics at the time. Truman threw himself into the work. Most notably, he oversaw the construction of two county courthouses and an ambitious plan that greatly improved the county's roads.

    Boss Tom

    From the turn of the century well into the 1940s, Kansas City Democratic politics were largely run by the Irish-Catholic Pendergast family -- first by saloonkeeper "Alderman Jim," and later and most famously, by his younger brother Tom, sometimes known as "Boss Tom". Truman's wartime friend Jim Pendergast was the son of Mike Pendergast, the younger brother of Boss Tom and Alderman Jim. He introduced Truman into Jackson County Democratic politics. While Truman's political opponents often made much of his Pendergast connections, the issue did not prevent him from winning election to higher office.


    While in the army, Truman pondered his future in a letter to Bess, mentioning the possibility of "running for Eastern Judge or something." In 1922, he found himself doing just that. He campaigned throughout Jackson County, promoting a platform of better roads and better management of the county's business. The campaign was a success: on New Year's Day 1923, Judge Truman was sworn in. At that time, a County Judge was roughly equivalent to today's county commissioner. After losing a reelection bid in 1924, he campaigned again in 1926, this time for Presiding Judge. He won and went on to serve two terms.

    County Roads

    One of Truman's major accomplishments as County Judge was the improvement of Jackson County roads. He appointed a board to draw up a plan and survey the county's roads, and then sought approval for two separate bond issues to fund the project. Voters approved both bonds. By the time he left office, Jackson County had more than 200 miles of new concrete roads. Easy access to good roads helped farmers throughout the county get their produce and livestock to market.

    County Courthouses

    As presiding judge, Truman wanted to build a new county courthouse in Kansas City and remodel the courthouse in Independence, the county seat. Driving cross-country to look at public buildings, he was impressed by the distinctive Art Deco style of the Caddo Parish Courthouse in Shreveport, Louisiana. Its architect was hired as a consultant for the Kansas City Courthouse. For the county seat, Truman chose Independence Hall in Philadelphia as a model. Both courthouses were completed by the time Truman moved on to the United States Senate in 1935.

    Pickwick Papers

    Between 1930 and 1934, Truman occasionally took refuge at the Pickwick Hotel in downtown Kansas City. He had become increasingly tense, prone to headaches and insomnia, and the Pickwick was a place where he could think and work uninterrupted. During his stays, Truman became introspective, pouring out his thoughts about Jackson County politics and personalities on page after page of hotel stationery. He described the corruption he had witnessed and the ethical dilemmas he faced. His "Pickwick Papers" provide remarkable insight into the difficulties a future President struggled with early in his political career.