Jesus Christ and General Jackson

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Back in April 1945, Vice President Harry S. Truman received a phone call. He was told to come “quickly and quietly” to the White House. Without being explicitly told, Truman realized that the frail and ailing president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, must have just died. When he hung up the phone, Truman reacted with the exclamation, “Jesus Christ and General Jackson!” Truman was jolted with the realization that all the responsibility of the presidency was about to become his.

When I first read that, I did wonder how often Harry S. Truman heard that exact exclamation — “Jesus Christ and General Jackson” — while he was growing up. It sounds like a regional Southern-ism one of his parents might have said in a moment of exasperation. The phrase might-could have been original to Harry himself; but it has such an alliterative, poetic ring to it that I do wonder and sort of suspect that he picked it up secondhand somewhere. To me, it sounds like something a midcentury Southerner would have said and heard with some frequency. And yes, Truman can be considered somewhat of a Southerner — close enough, at least. Truman’s home state of Missouri was a border state and divided battle ground during the American Civil War, the war between the North and the South. The American Civil War was within a long lifetime and living memory of 1945. Harry S. Truman himself was only a generation removed from it, having been born in Lamar, Missouri, in the year 1884 (if Wikipedia has all that information right).

Incidentally and for those who might be interested, I first came across Truman’s “Jesus-and-General Jackson” exclamation last summer while reading or listening to an online preview of Countdown 1945, a historical book by FOX newsman Chris Wallace. Wallace also served as the moderator of one the 2020 presidential debates between then-president Donald J. Trump and now-president Joseph R. Biden. During that debate, former President Trump memorably and repeatedly interrupted and spoke over both Biden and Wallace. It was quite an interaction and quite the televised spectacle. To his credit, and although clearly exasperated, Chris Wallace had the self-composure not to react to Trump with any unseemly exclamations. That said, I do wonder how Wallace privately reflects upon and retells his back-and-forth with Trump during that debate. What would Wallace say about it in private, unfiltered?

Our uncensored exclamations and unfiltered reactions — such are my immediate interest here. What do you exclaim when you are exasperated? What do you say when you are shocked? What comes out of your mind and out of your mouth when your only company is you yourself?           

Truman’s reaction to his fateful phone call in April 1945 can be perceived as something quite negative or something quite positive. Negatively, Truman might have been casually dropping the name of Jesus as a cus word. Or positively, he might have been issuing a quasi-prayer. It would have been a very unorthodox prayer, admittedly, which is why I call it a quasi-prayer. But still, it could have been a prayer. If, in a moment of great consequence, the first thing that comes from the lips of a stunned someone is the name of Jesus, it could well be a prayer. Truman may have been thinking, “Lord Jesus Christ, I am suddenly the President. Please help me.” And even the “General Jackson” addendum can be interpreted charitably. Truman may have been in the habit of playing off his knee-jerk prayers as mere Southern-isms for secular political society. 

Not convinced? Okay yes, I do realize that I am probably being way too generous with the late Harry S. Truman. And no, I have not researched his life well enough to know how pious and prayerful he may have been as a person. It would be interesting to do some homework and find out. Maybe someday I will.   

The Book of Exodus 20:7 is where the third of the Ten Commandments can be found. In that verse God declares: “Thou shall not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.”

Consequently and on the Christian assumption that Jesus Christ is indeed divine, after receiving that phone call, Harry S. Truman was either praying or taking the name of the LORD in vain. Whichever. I suppose when God replays it for us someday we will find out which one it was.

There is nothing covered that will not be uncovered, nothing hidden that will not be made known. Therefore, whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in an ear in private rooms will be proclaimed on the housetops.

Jesus, remarking to his disciples, as recorded in the Gospel of Luke 12:2-3

Yes, I do read that literally (sort of). And yes, I believe it to be true. Someday, all of our laundry will be aired, no matter how dirty. Someday, our most private conversations and exclamations will be made public.

Jesus Christ! That’s totally terrifying! 

Jesus Christ, I do hope that everything I have said and done is covered by your cleansing blood on that day.