Monday, September 16, 2013

TRUMAN by David McCullough

This review has been some time coming.  The trade paperback edition I read is 992 pages plus acknowledgements, footnotes, bibliography, and index.  Practically got a hernia carrying it around.  I also had commitments to review other books so I had to put it aside occasionally to read and review shorter books, usually fiction.  Despite a weekend of football watching, though, I finally finished it Sunday afternoon.  Now I'm almost sorry it's done.

Anyone who loves history and biography as much as I do knows David McCullough writes like a storyteller.  His prose is never dry, boring, or academic, yet he unfailingly tells the reader what is important to know about a person or an event.  

I thought I knew a lot about Harry Truman, a fellow Midwesterner, but I didn't.  I simply understood "where he was coming from" as the kids say.  His childhood as a farm boy who wore glasses and was also a dedicated student was delightful to read about.  In Sunday school he fell hard for a little girl with golden curls and beautiful eyes, Bess Wallace.  She was his only love but they didn't marry until they were in their 30s.  Mama Wallace never did consider Harry good enough for her daughter, even when she was dying in the White House near the end of his time as President of the United States.  Regardless, he never said a bad word about her, ever.

Now that I know the truth about his spell as Tom Pendergast's candidate for county office and the enduring reputation as a product of that political machine, I understand a bit more about why my grandfather had such a low opinion of Truman.  Of course, he would have felt that way anyway since Truman was a Democrat which made him, in Gramps' eyes, a spawn of the Devil.  Hard to believe this liberal Democrat (me) came from such a staunch Republican family, but I did because when I was old enough to think things out for myself, that was the way I believed.  That was a matter I never discussed with Gramps.  He would have been horrified.

We were city people, but farmers and small town folks loved Truman.  When he went on his whistle stop tour running for president on his own, he stopped in the small towns and he talked their language.  They loved his honesty, his humbleness, the way he introduced Bess as "the boss," and his knowledge of their cares and worries.  (Although one time she told him if he introduced her thus one more time, she was going to get off the train and go home.)  They also appreciated his service in World War I, as a captain of artillery.  The men he commanded were to remain his good friends for the rest of his life and participate as honor guards at his inaugural parade.

His Achilles heel was daughter Margaret.  No one could criticize her singing or anything else about her without feeling the full strength of Truman's wrath.  He had begun to think he would never realize his desire to be a grandfather when she stayed single so long, but eventually she married and Truman would hold the first of four grandsons in his arms just a few days after he was born.  Doting grandpa was his proud title from then on.

It was fascinating to read about his taking office after Roosevelt's death.  FDR had not liked him very much, and didn't include him in briefings and conferences, so suddenly Truman had a huge learning curve immediately ahead of him.  He pulled himself up by his own bootstraps as people used to say and did very well.  He was fortunate enough to find some of the best men in the country to man the cabinet and be his advisors.  Dean Acheson, in fact, was a close friend until his death.  

His performance in Potsdam was surprising to Stalin and Churchill.  One of my favorite quotes in the book is from Churchill.  He wrote in 1952,  "I misjudged you badly.  Since that time you more than any other man, have saved Western civilization."  (p. 875)

Whether to use the atomic bomb is another period I'm glad to know more about, and Korea.  To know what went on in the background and the agony those decisions cost him was a revelation to me.  Once a decision was made, he stuck with it no matter how many critics condemned him.

I won't go on but, in short, this is one of the best biographies I've ever read.  Thank you David McCullough for giving us this wonderful story, the life of a controversial man who was so vital in our history.

Highly recommended
Source:  purchased several years ago


  1. Both my mother and I love biographies so I'm excited to see you loved this one so much. I'm thinking it might make a good gift for my mother.

  2. I gave this book to my dad for Christmas 20 years ago - and always hoped I'd inherit it. Alas, his things were dispersed and I don't know what became of his books. :-(

  3. This sounds like a fascinating read - but 992 pages? Wow!

  4. You've written a wonderful review! I love, love, love this book. DM is the best writer. Because of him I fell in love with two long-dead Presidents - John Adams, and Harry Truman.