Massive biography recounts Harry Truman's election, presidency

June 14, 1992|By Paul West | Paul West,Mr. West is Washington bureau chief of The Sun.


David McCullough.

Simon & Schuster.

1,117 pages. $30. The 1980 Republican convention was out of control. From his perch in the CBS anchor booth, Walter Cronkite was brokering a deal that would put former President Gerald R. Ford on the Reagan ticket. At a nearby hotel, George Bush squirmed anxiously in his suite, awaiting a phone call that might never come.

During a break in the action, a rookie reporter hurrying down a corridor at the convention hall found himself overtaken by the loping gait of Richard L. Strout, a journalistic legend who'd been covering presidential politics since the days of Warren G. Harding. Never breaking stride, Mr. Strout grumped that all this excitement was taking place after his weekly deadline had passed. Worse, he'd embarrassed himself by writing about what a dull convention the Republicans had put on, a column his knowledgeable audience would read only after the convention was over. The young reporter tried offering words of sympathy, but Mr. Strout would have none of it. "That isn't anything," he said dismissively. As if savoring a treasured memory, he explained, "I had Dewey beating Truman."

He certainly did, and he wasn't alone. Three weeks before election day, a Newsweek magazine poll appeared on newsstands. Fifty top political reporters had been asked by the magazine who would win the election; all picked Thomas E. Dewey, the Republican nominee. "The landslide for Dewey will sweep the country," Newsweek reported confidently.

As recounted by historian David McCullough in his mammoth, marvelously written biography of the nation's 33rd president (or 32nd, as Harry S. Truman would have it; he objected to Grover Cleveland's getting counted twice), only one prominent person in America seemed convinced that Truman would win that year: the president himself. In comments to his staff and letters to his family, he consistently predicted victory, no matter what the polls and pundits said. "At no point in the campaign did any of the staff, or the press, or his family ever see Truman show a sign of failing stamina, or failing confidence," Mr. McCullough writes.

Although the outcome of the election is a familiar story, the lively retelling of that campaign is a tribute to the author's celebrated talents as a writer ("The Path Between the Seas," "Mornings on Horseback"). Reading this admiring chronicle, one is occasionally at a loss to understand why the whole country didn't share Truman's confidence.

There are no major surprises in the elaborately detailed portrait of Truman's life, which stretches nearly 1,000 pages in length and covers the story from the arrival of his forebears in western Missouri in the mid-1800s until his death there on the day after Christmas in 1972. The facts of Truman's life have been told before, much of it by Truman himself in thousands of letters to friends and relatives and in his memoirs. What Mr. McCullough has done, with great narrative force, is to evoke Truman's sometimes romantic, often ornery, spirit and to make a %o persuasive case for him as one of the great figures of the century.

In tracing his rise to the nation's highest office, which Truman never seriously sought, and his growth as a leader once he got there, Mr. McCullough appears to have achieved his goal of creating the definitive Truman biography. This is a work of the old school, it must be added, mercifully free of amateur psychoanalysis or speculation about Truman's motives in places where the record is inconclusive.

Harry S. Truman grew up among survivors of the great push westward. His hometown of Independence, Mo., was a staging area for the commerce of the frontier. Farming life and a stint as an Army officer in World War I provided much of his higher education; his formal schooling stopped after the 12th grade. He was a late bloomer, arriving on the national scene at the age of 50, a product of the corrupt politics of Kansas City's infamous Pendergast machine. His own integrity was never seriously questioned, although his administration was singed by scandal; he became the man who led the United States into a Cold War it would ultimately win, and was the first president of the television age.

"[A]s much as any president since Lincoln, he brought to the highest office the language and values of the common American people," Mr. McCullough writes. "He came directly from the people. He was America." There was certainly nothing common about the decisions Truman made during his years as president, decisions that will reverberate well into the 21st century -- dropping the atomic weapon on Japan and giving the go-ahead to build the hydrogen bomb; his later refusal to use nuclear force in the Korean War; granting diplomatic recognition to Israel; becoming the first president to push for national health insurance. He relished making decisions, despite the anguish it often caused him, because, he said, that was his job.

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