COMMEMORATING Thomas Jefferson's 250th birth anniversary...

THEO LIPPMAN JR.

April 22, 1993|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

COMMEMORATING Thomas Jefferson's 250th birth anniversary the other day, I Noted in passing that Garry Wills, ex of the Hopkins faculty, had just won a Pulitzer Prize on the same day that a fawning Harry Truman biography won one for David McCullough.

I Commented to the effect that there's a mild irony in that, since Garry is one of the world's leading Truman-bashers.

I based that on an article Wills wrote for Esquire ("I'm Not Wild About Harry," January 1976). This was about the time the modern Truman revival started. Harry had died in 1972, and a very heroic portrait of him had come out in 1974: Merle Miller's "Plain Speaking. An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman."

To Wills, Harry was ignorant, a liar, a closet bully and a demagogue who started the Cold War to get elected in 1948. I agree with that assessment, but, nothing if not fair, I now bring the other view from my other favorite ex-Hopkins historian-journalist. That's C. Vann Woodward. He reviewed the McCullough book for the New York Review of Books (July 16, 1992).

First of all, though he labels McCullough Truman's "admiring biographer," which is a less critical adjective than my "fawning," he goes on to say: "While McCullough is certainly not hostile to Truman, and is inclined at times to quote the more favorable opinion and give him rather more than the benefit of the doubt, he is by no means uncritical."

Also: "Any fair appraisal of McCullough's thousand-page book would concede that it is so far the best and most comprehensive biography of Truman that we have."

Woodward's lengthy, selective summary of the book adds up, to this reader at least as, while by no means uncritical, favorable and giving Truman the benefit of the doubt. For instance, he writes, "The uneducated Truman had a more informed historical imagination than we now expect from presidents or candidates for president." (Interesting. CVW left Hopkins for Yale. Which provided the nation the last two presidents.) Also for instance, Woodward wrote, "Those who (like the reviewer) lived through those times . . . may also find confirmation for the impression that since those years they have not seen in the White House an occupant who was Harry Truman's equal in some important respects, notably in integrity of character and sense of history."

Finally, Woodward defended McCullough's Truman biography on the grounds that it is the kind of book -- "old fashioned, anecdotal narrative history" -- that the public wants and his fellow academics used to write but no longer do, leaving the field to such popular writers as McCullough.

Too many academic historians today, Woodward concludes, write only for each other and would never take seriously "a white male biographer writing about dead white males and what they did or thought about other dead white males."

Too bad. It's hard to write American history without doing that.

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