by David McCullough,
Simon & Schuster, 1992

How's this sound? Gains in personal income, standards of living, education, and housing unparalleled in American history. Unemployment all but washed away by 11 million new jobs in seven years. Farm and corporate income at all-time highs. Dividends, too. Not a single failure of an insured bank. The national debt under control.

A George Bush wet dream? Probably 4 nights a week. But also the way the country looked when Harry S Truman boxed up his stuff on the last day of his presidency in January of 1953. Not a bad legacy for a guy that Time had tagged "that mousy little man from Missouri" eight years earlier.

Many Americans then agreed with the magazine's unflattering assessment. After twelve years of the charismatic, patrician Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, who, in his bland midwestern manner and appearance "might have stepped from a Sinclair Lewis novel", seemed a drab mediocrity, a lackluster "Missouri Compromise"--an anonymity selected as FDR's running mate in 1944 almost by default because party honchos believed that he would hurt the ticket least.

But in that same bookish Missouri farm boy enraptured with history, decorated World War I artillery captain, failed businessman, and lately U.S. Senator, Winston Churchill saw "a man of intense determination", former FDR Vice-President John Nance Garner, "a leader with a headful of good horse sense....and guts," and White House aide Harry Vaughan, "one tough son-of-a-bitch."

Truman was all of these and more as David McCullough shows us in his simply and appropriately titled Truman whose straightforward, down-to-earth subject would have felt more in common, more at ease, with the earlier Roosevelt, Theodore...They were much more alike in temperament. They could have talked books, Army life, or the boyhood handicap of having to meet the world wearing thick spectacles. Or possibly the old fear of being thought a sissy. Like Theodore Roosevelt, and unlike Franklin, Truman had never known what it was to be glamorous.

Throughout his lively, often gripping narrative, McCullough portrays the unpretentious little Missourian as that rare apotheosis of democracy: an ordinary man who did extraordinary things--a man of "exceptional resolve, with great reserves of personal courage and cheerfulness" whose position in the hierarchy of American presidents is now but a notch below that of demi-gods Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and, yes, Franklin Roosevelt; a "Near Great" whose star rises higher each decade.

And an equally uncommon chief executive who, in this age of sound bites and spin doctors, of "Read my Lips" and governing by Gallup Poll, offers an enduring lesson in the difference between being president and being presidential.

Unfolding the frantic sequence of wartime and postwar events, and the decisions they demanded, at a near breathless pace, McCullough convincingly argues his case that no president--not Lincoln , not FDR--confronted more crises more quickly, was less prepared to face them, and made fewer mistakes than Truman who, kept almost wholly uninformed by Roosevelt, was sworn in "unprepared, bewildered, and frightened." And yet, from day one, even when tensions flirted with the boiling point, Truman stayed in the kitchen--fiercely confident in his judgment and unswayed by popular opinion or political pressure. "I wonder," he once said, "how far Moses would have gone if he'd taken a poll in Egypt.... It isn't polls or public opinion of the moment that counts. It's right and wrong." To paraphrase a popular World War II song, it's been a long, long time since we've heard the man in the Oval Office say anything like that--and then act on it.

That Truman would have reviled the current President's penchant for attack-dog campaigning, use of polls as a political weathervane to measure the expediency of position flip-flops, and shamelessly insincere pork-barrel giveaways to buy votes, making Bush's desperate attempts to liken himself to Truman laughable--had they not been so pathetic. For Truman had, McCullough reveals, "no patience with hypocrisy or circumlocution" and even when, in 1948, he faced political oblivion, "he never criticized or ridiculed (his opponent) in a personal way...there was never any consideration of attacking him on a personal level." Bush, obviously, knows nothing of the man whose name he invokes so quickly and so often.

A man who, only days after being sworn in, and feeling like "the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me," stated unequivocally that "I am here to make decisions and whether they prove right or wrong I am going to make them." And McCullough, with astonishing dramatic impact (since we already know the outcomes) uses bold brush strokes to paint them all: decisions to drop the atom bomb on Japan, to thwart Soviet expansionism, to champion medical care for the aged, and to save Western Europe with the Marshall Plan and Berlin Airlift. And later, to send U.S. troops to Korea ("of all his decisions, the toughest", McCullough informs us) and eventually to fire frustrated ego-king Douglas MacArthur whose birdbrained plan for resolving the Korean dilemma was "dropping 30 to 50 atom bombs on Manchuria and China."

Moreover, McCullough points out, it was Truman, born in a former slave state, who fearlessly pushed for the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction and personally desegregated America's armed forces by executive order-driving southern Democrats from his own party (after already chasing the liberal wing out the door with his tough stance against the Soviet Union) and knowingly jeopardizing his 1948 re-election bid against heavily-favored Republican challenger Thomas Dewey.

As the 1948 Democratic convention opened, McCullough vividly recounts, Truman faced political disaster and personal humiliation. He had been castigated by southern Democrats over civil rights, repudiated by a Republican Congress. He had faced the pressures of the Palestine issue, the increasing threat of war over Berlin, watched his popularity disintegrate in the polls, seen himself portrayed in the press as inept and pathetic. His party was broke. No President in memory, not even Herbert Hoover in his darkest days, had been treated with such open contempt by his own party.

McCullough then raises the hair on the back of his reader's neck by spinning a thrilling blow-by-blow page-turner of how "Give `em hell, Harry!" brought the moribund convention to its feet cheering by promising to "win this election in November and make those Republicans like it!" , and then carried his message to the American people on an exhausting, but victorious 21,928-mile, 350-speech Whistlestop Campaign that electrified the nation (and has near mythic status today) and won grudging praise from even his worst detractors--a sharp contrast to the malaise that has settled like gray industrial ash over every fall campaign for the past two decades including the present sorry squabble.

When told during the campaign that fifty of the nation's foremost political experts had been polled and all had picked Dewey by a landslide, Truman, who never lost faith in himself, laughed it off. "I know all fifty of those fellows," he said, "and not one of them has enough sense to pound sand into a rat hole."

And we all know how that chapter turned out.

Drawing deeply from primary historical sources including official and personal papers of administration insiders such as Secretaries of State George Marshall and Dean Acheson, White House correspondents of the day, and Truman's own revealing diary and letters, McCullough proves that during not only the `48 campaign, but throughout his nearly two full terms, the Man from Independence--again and again and again--showed that, by damn, it is possible to stand for something, to say and do what in your gut you know is right, and still win an election. To be presidential--a moral keel for the ship of state--and not just the man who lives in the White House.

While our 33rd president may have been ordinary, he was hardly simple--a distinction that McCullough makes on nearly every one of Truman's 992 pages of text. In unpeeling layer by layer Truman's record as an astute, decisive leader, a politician who always knew what he was and didn't need "consultants" to tell him what to think or say, and a man of strong character and unimpeachable decency, McCullough brings the vividness of fiction to biography; he is a master storyteller and much of Truman--the trauma of following the godlike Roosevelt, the atomic bomb enigma, the 1948 campaign, and the Korean face-off with MacArthur, in particular-- reads like a stirring historical novel fat with taut dialogue and richly fleshed-out characters performing against a momentous historical backdrop. More The Winds of War than The Age of Jackson.

McCullough also shows us that, in the plain-spoken, often profane Truman, the public persona and the private man were one in the same.

In a word, feisty.

The same bespectacled 160-pound chunk of scrap iron draped in natty double-breasted suits and two-tone wingtips who denounced red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy, won the stare-down with Stalin in Berlin, and canned an American legend without so much as a blink, was the same man outside the spotlight--once threatening to throw Joe Kennedy out the window of Boston's Ritz-Carlton when the self-proclaimed Democratic kingmaker and FDR-hater scolded Truman for "campaigning for that damned crippled son-of-a-bitch in the White House" and, later, to serve up a black eye and a pair of swollen testicles to Washington Post music critic David Hume for what Truman felt was an unnecessarily nasty review of daughter Margaret's singing.

"I wonder," he once said, "how far Moses would have gone if he'd taken a poll in Egypt.... It isn't polls or public opinion of the moment that counts. It's right and wrong."

Yet, while Truman is as engrossing as biography gets, it's not perfect. Readers looking for new interpretations of the historical watershed that was the Truman era will come up empty. There is little in Truman not covered in earlier Trumanalia such as Robert Donovan's excellent Conflict and Crisis (1977). But McCullough's strength is not original scholarship; it is creating in his reader's mind a powerful visceral feel for the man and the time as he did in his earlier work on Theodore Roosevelt, Mornings on Horseback, or his humanizing of the builders of the Panama Canal. McCullough is to the Truman years what the late Bruce Catton was to the American Civil War in transporting both heart and mind back to an earlier time to experience the past rather than merely understand it.

Still, McCullough, like many Americans today desperate to fill the current political vacuum with heroes from the past, gives only lip service to Truman's flaws--a shortcoming endemic to biographers. While undeniably a man of action whose whole political life lived up to the sign on his desk ("The Buck Stops Here"), Truman was also unreflective, seldom agonizing over his decisions once he made them, a trait McCullough recognizes but brushes over lightly.

Truman, with his rural Missouri background, and partly, too, because of the limits of his education, was inclined to see things in far simpler terms, as right or wrong, wise or foolish. He dealt little with abstractions. His answers to questions, even complicated questions, were nearly always direct and assured, plainly said, and followed often by a conclusive `And that's all there is to it, an old Missouri expression, when in truth there may have been a great deal more `to it'."

For example, McCullough selects a mountain of evidence in support of Truman who said many times that he "never had any doubt that it (the atomic bomb) should be used", especially when the most likely alternative--an invasion of the Japanese home islands--would cost "a quarter of a million of the flower of our young manhood...and {avoiding this) was worth a couple of Japanese cities." An invasion was, McCullough argues, even more unthinkable to Truman than to any other president because:

An invasion of Japan would be work for ground troops, dirty, God-awful business for infantry and artillery, as he knew from his own experience. For unlike Roosevelt, or Woodrow Wilson, or any Commander in Chief since the advent of modern war, Truman had been in combat with ground the Argonne (in 1918)....

Furthermore, he contends, could a President...answer to the American people if when the war was over, after the bloodbath of an invasion of Japan, it became known that a weapon sufficient to end the war had been available by midsummer and was not used?

McCullough tosses in literally dozens of similarly cogent pro-bomb arguments in support of what was, essentially, a snap decision on Truman's part that revealed his reluctance to grapple with the issue's obvious moral complexities. And later, when Robert Oppenheimer, the bomb's chief architect, came to Truman anguishing over the blood on his hands, Truman dismissed him as a "crybaby", told the distraught physicist that "the blood is on my hands. Let me worry about it", and hoped he'd never see him again.

Truman's oversight in excluding South Korea from announced U.S. defense perimeters in 1949 may have been a green light to the Soviet-supplied and supported North Koreans and his two Supreme Court appointees were part of the majority that upheld the imprisonment of American Communist Party leaders for simply speaking in favor of Marxism--a decision that helped fuel the national paranoia that ultimately spawned McCarthyism. And, like most of his predecessors, Truman's timing was sometimes errant. Just as Hoover promised that "prosperity is just around the corner" shortly before the stock market crashed, Truman said that he thought that "the world was closer to real peace than at any time in the last five years" just three weeks before the Korean War began.

OK, so he wasn't prescient and he wasn't perfect. Even McCullough reluctantly concedes that here and there. Still, in looking back at the kind of man he was and the collective correctness of his decisions, the mythology that currently surrounds Truman really isn't that far beyond the nearly equally impressive reality. And it is worth noting, as McCullough does, that

The loyalty of those around Truman was total and would never falter.
In years to come not one member of the Truman White House would ever speak or write scathingly of him or belittle him in any fashion.
There would be no vindictive "inside" books or articles written about this President by those who worked closest to him.....

Even columnist Walter Lippman, one of Truman's most relentless and vehement critics, wrote in the final days that "Mr. Truman has been every inch the President, conscious of the great office and worthy of it."

Harry S Truman--not merely president, but presidential. When shall we see another?

-Doug Rennie

The other half of Back by Populist Demand is Huey Long.
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Last Modified: 28 March 1995 by Darrel Plant
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