David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Truman is a massive and highly readable biography of a man who has gone down in American political legend as the author of such aphorisms as “The buck stops here” and “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” Unlike such recent political biographies as Roger Morris’ Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician (1989), Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent (1990), and Thomas Reeves’s A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy (1991), McCullough’s work paints a highly favorable portrait of its subject. The author clearly admired the man about whom he wrote.
Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard M. Nixon were all born in the twentieth century and came of political age after World War II. They pioneered the new mass politics dominated by imagery diffused through the electronic media. Harry Truman was a different sort of man entirely. As McCullough states repeatedly, Truman was a nineteenth century man, attuned to the morals and public vision of an earlier age. It is the loss of this older political world, in which, supposedly, policy was the product of moral imperatives and debate was moved by ideas rather than images, that exercises many contemporary political biographers. While the younger postwar presidents are excoriated for embodying the sins of their times, Truman and his successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, are celebrated for their Victorian approach to life.
Nostalgia for a lost golden age is a Western intellectual reflex. Such yearning can lead to beneficial results, inculcating in people respect for the achievements of their forebears and a healthy modesty about contemporary efforts. As a model for historical analysis, it leaves much to be desired. To truly understand a historical figure, the scholar must, as much as possible, be free from preconceptions that could cloud the sometimes fragmentary evidence. An effort must be made to comprehend the historical figure and his or her world on their own terms. Only then, once the subject of a study has been situated in a specific milieu, should the scholar venture the moral generalizations so important to history.
Unfortunately, Truman all too clearly bears the imprint of a mold. McCullough has produced a wonderful morality tale. In the moral universe of Truman, hard work, clean living, and a few breaks are the recipe for success, and the example of Harry Truman is a reproach to the laziness and cynicism of the current era. Truman will speak loudly and clearly to Americans dissatisfied with contemporary politics and politicians. For readers interested in understanding the character of Harry Truman and its relation to his achievements, the book will be a disappointment. In Truman, the real Harry Truman is a blurred and indistinct figure, lost beneath McCullough’s enthusiasms.
McCullough begins with an eloquent evocation of Truman’s pioneer heritage, tracing the westward migration of his ancestors and detailing their adventures on the frontier. Truman grew up with these stories of his forebears and burned with their desire to make a fortune and move up in the world. McCullough writes that Truman enjoyed an unusually happy childhood, but that he had few male friends. McCullough vividly re-creates the charms of life in a small town in middle America at the turn of the century. The economic security of the Truman family fluctuated with the financial ventures of Harry’s father. John Truman dreamed of becoming wealthy through speculating on commodities futures. Eventually he succeeded only in wiping out his and his wife’s assets, forcing the family to live in straitened circumstances in Kansas City, Missouri.
Harry, by this time having graduated from high school, moved out and went to work as a bank clerk. He bloomed on his own, making friends and advancing at the bank, but in 1905 his father summoned him to help run his grandmother’s farm. Obediently, Harry sacrificed his independence and, to the astonishment of his friends, became a farmer. He remained on the farm for the next twelve years. In later years, on the campaign trail, Truman would extol the life of the American farmer. McCullough writes of Truman’s growing skill with animals and crops, his physical filling out and prowess, and the opportunity farming gave him to grow closer to his hitherto distant father. These were good years for American agriculture, and the farm proved profitable. Truman, however, like his father, was obsessed with getting rich quickly, and like his father his investments in various schemes always went sour. Although he remained on the surface a pleasant and earnest young man, there is reason to believe that Truman’s early character contained complexities and darker shades passed over by McCullough in his upbeat account.
World War I was a decisive turning point in Harry Truman’s life. In 1917 he was thirty-three years old, safely past draft age. His eyes were extremely...
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