“Democracy is Lovelace and the people is Clarissa.”
—John Adams

I was born in 1946, right in the middle of Harry Truman’s accidental and tumultuous first term as President. I have no memory of the man until one early November morning in 1952, when my mother and grandmother were discussing the election of Dwight Eisenhower. As I vaguely recall, this discussion centered around the Korean War and Ike’s promise to go to Korea and bring the boys home. Somewhere it turned into argument, and that is when I first heard the phrase that, for much of mv early life at least, was to define the 33rd President of the United States—”That Damned Truman.”

Understand, please, that this took place in Winfield, Kansas—”12,000 friendly people,” most of them Eisenhower partisans. Ike was a Kansan; Truman a Missourian. And considering what we say about politicians today, ” That Damned Truman” may have been not so much a curse as it was a grudging measure of respect, for all I know.

Certainly, others differed. Some historians and political scientists have contended in recent years that Harry Truman was one of the greatest of American Presidents. One need only look at the exhaustive bibliography compiled by David McCullough for his quite readable and thorough Truman to understand that the Truman administration has been an obsession of scholars almost from the day his train took him home to Independence in January of 1953. But I also think it’s safe to say, twenty years after his death and forty years after he left the White House, that we’re still not sure if we’re wild about Harry. From time to time, however, some of the scholarship on Truman has helped produce Truman revivals that cast this machine-age politician—once called the Senator from Pendergast—in a very favorable, if not fawning, light.

Because he lived to the age of 88, Truman had the opportunity to share in a few of these reappraisals, principally the ones that occurred with the publication of his memoirs in 1955, the opening of his library in 1957, and his 80th birthday in 1964. Yet it was in the 1970’s, when he was no longer around, that the idea of a true Harry Truman revival—almost elevating the man to mythical proportions—took hold. It no doubt started with his daughter Margaret’s Harry S. Truman—a remarkably interesting though one-sided set-the-record-straight portrait of her father published when he was on his death bed—and went on through much of the decade, including a popular song by the rock-group Chicago, a hugely successful one-man show by actor James Whitmore, and, of course, Merle Miller’s entertaining Plain Speaking. It should be noted, also, that this Truman revival took place at a time when the nation was coming out of the miserable war in Vietnam and Watergate’s shock to the presidency. One has to presume that after Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, America was looking for anyone who could make the presidency look good.

As I write, Bill Clinton has just delivered his acceptance speech for the Democratic nomination, and Ross Perot has dropped his independent bid to seek the White House. President Bu.sh is off somewhere in Wyoming, and the instant polls are already giving Governor Clinton, the characterless candidate of just a few weeks ago, an enormous lead. The country seems in a gridlock, the voters alienated. Could it be that Harry Truman, thanks to David McCullough’s scholarship, is looking good again?

Certainly he is, but let’s backtrack a bit. Truman, a ten-year effort of Mr. McCullough, is one of those well-timed works guaranteed to get notice, win awards, and set off columnists and commentators debating the merits of the Truman administration. It is also—and appropriately too, considering the great amount of documentation not only of Truman’s life but of America in the postwar era—a monument to the man. While I think that one could get a better understanding of Jackson County, Missouri, under the control of Boss Tom Pendergast by reading Tom’s Town, a marvelous but largely overlooked work by William Reddig (reissued by the University of Missouri Press in 1986), and that the review of Truman’s White House years seems very familiar (and why not, again considering the documentation), this book should not be dismissed. Other Presidents have statues; Harry Truman left a record.

Yet there is a danger when examining Mr. McCullough’s biography, and that is in allowing ourselves the luxury of comparing this presidency—in reality so much a part of our recent past, though for half of the population my age and under the Truman years are ancient history—with what we have now. If the early Truman revival was sparked by Vietnam and Watergate, a time when our constitutional form of government seemed in the process of being torn to shreds, then it stands to reason that another Truman revival should occur in a period when our governmental way of life appears to have flat broken down.

Politics, the business of conducting the public’s business, has become the business of alienating the public. Special interests rule the day from the halls of Congress down to the city councils. A President who once basked in some of the highest ratings of popularity ever recorded after winning a lightning war then wallowed near the bottom of the polls. The Democrats, out of the White House now for 12 years, offer up two fresh-scrubbed faces and try to portray themselves as the party of change, and an Independent acts as a pied piper to thousands left out or bored with it all, only to change his mind the very week of the Democratic Convention. Surely there are parallels to 1948, when Harry Truman confounded the press, his own staff, and most of all Tom Dewey by winning what is still considered the greatest upset in American presidential elections.

But one must evaluate Truman for its distinctions. Although his admiration for Harry Truman is evident, I do not believe that Mr. McCullough’s reason for taking on such a project was to give us a feel-good attitude about Harry Truman. The book is a serious biographical appraisal, and Mr. McCullough is at his best when he describes the life and times of the former President. He is not resuscitating Harry Truman, but showing him as a character from our history.

Still parallels will be drawn, so let us consider the distinctions. Immediately following their nomination. Bill Clinton and Al Gore set out on a bus tour of the industrial states of the “Rust Belt,” and immediately references began to be made to a “whistle-stop” tour. Since words come cheap to political polemicists, you can call it a whistle-stop tour all you want, but it most certainly is not (nor have been any of the other imitations, including Michael Dukakis’ short jaunt up the Central Valley of California in 1988) the “whistle stop” that Harry Truman introduced into the American political lexicon. No one has matched his Herculean feat—not in distance of miles traveled by train, not in speeches given, not in the size of crowds attracted. In other words, Harry Truman was not looking for “photo-ops” or “soundbites” that would hit the evening news; he was working for his election.

But there is another distinction, and that is the bond that Harry Truman established with the American people. He knew that some of them could not stand him, but he treated all as though they were his employer and asked them to consider their interests—not his—when casting their votes. Yet the one distinction, not raised by Mr. McCullough directly but evident to readers throughout his narrative, is the most obvious one. And this, of course, is that America today is a very different place than it was in 1948.

Truman was thrown into the presidency in the twilight of World War II. He had to make the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan and then in peacetime faced the twin problems of returning the nation to a peacetime footing while holding off Joe Stalin, who was threatening another global conflict. World War II had broken isolationism for good, and America seriously debated its role in the world.

Today, we seem a nation obsessed with trivia and the glorification of self. We see government—or really, the political process—as irrelevant unless government is to relieve the pain of our own follies. The press, which used to proudly proclaim itself the Fourth Estate, is no longer our watchdog, but a lapdog for irresponsible experimentation with social engineering, offering a nationwide forum for an endless freak show of malcontents who know they can get the media eye by blaming their problems on the Reagan-Bush administrations. We worship as a hero a sports figure who advises us to use condoms lest we catch his sexually transmitted virus and put alarm systems in our houses so the illegal aliens we have hired to cut the grass don’t come back to steal the VCR. Our political battles, or so the endless number of chattering observers tell us, are no longer over the great issues of the postwar era, but “family values” and a “woman’s right to choose.”

Consider this. In 1948, Harry Truman—facing more turmoil at home and much greater threats abroad—took his case directly to the American people. In 1992, Messrs. Bush and Clinton are having a difficult time even getting on television, the preferred medium of campaigning in our modern era. The deplorable lack of television coverage of the deplorably stage-managed Democratic Convention is but a prime example of the problem. One has to think “That Damned Truman” would not have tolerated such a slight—that he would have at least given the media barons a little hell. But the truth is, Harry Truman suffered even greater slights (although fortunately television in its infancy wasn’t much of a political player). The distinction here is that he found the way to overcome them.

Great leaders do (cliche intended) rise to the occasion. Harry Truman knew the job that was before him, knew what was expected of him, knew the price of his failures. But he also knew the American people. Only time will tell if the candidates of 1992 can acquire the same knowledge and deliver us from ourselves. 


[Truman, by David McCullough (New York: Simon & Schuster) 1,120 pp., $30.00]