Great yarn about Truman, if not great history Documentary: PBS' two-part biography emphasizes the positive and glosses over the negative about the former president.

October 05, 1997|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

David McCullough, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning biographer and host of "The American Experience," makes no bones about his take on Harry S. Truman.

"One can debate whether Harry Truman was a great man or a great president. I didn't have any strong feelings one way or the other when I started my own work on Truman, but I concluded that he was both -- a great man and a very great president," McCullough said during a press conference to promote "Truman," a two-part biography beginning tomorrow night on PBS.

McCullough serves as host and chief expert of "Truman," and his single-minded take on the 33rd president suffuses virtually every frame of the film. While it makes Truman's life into what McCullough calls "a very great story that no novelist could have invented," it also makes you wonder about the parts that are glossed over or altogether ignored -- the pesky ambiguities and contradictions of history that can get in the way of telling "a great story."

McCullough starts making his case for the very-great-man hypothesis from the opening of his introduction.

"A lot of people saw him as a small-time machine politician, a piano-playing, bourbon-drinking non-entity with a funny, countrified way of talking," he says of the Truman who was about to be sworn in as president.

"He knew what they thought. He had known obstacles all his life," McCullough says.

Yes, Truman had known obstacles all his life, and he failed to overcome most of them. He failed in farming, mining and selling hats, among other things. He only got out of debt and started his bTC climb to the White House when he became a political hack serving for one of the most vicious and corrupt political bosses of all time.

Thomas Pendergast, the man who owned Truman, not only ran a political machine in Missouri but also the rackets -- drugs, gambling and prostitution. This isn't just padded payrolls and kickbacks we're talking about with Pendergast. This is pumping drugs into Kansas City and killing people who don't pay debts.

To use the McCullough language of superlatives, Pendergast was a very great crook, and, in working for him as a political appointee, Harry S. Truman was also a crook. But that take on Truman does not make for a very great American story, so McCullough and producer David Grubin explain it away with excerpts from a letter written by Truman in which he says how badly he felt about being party to the corruption. He didn't feel badly enough, though, ever to walk away from it and renounce the spoils it afforded him in terms of a career.

Yes, PBS' "Truman" is a great yarn rich in personal detail that will catch you up and carry you unthinkingly along at a gallop for two nights if you let it.

It's a fine ride of a film, but understand that there's another side to the debate over whether Harry S. Truman was a "great man and very great president" that you are not getting.

'Truman'

What: Two-part documentary

When: 8 p.m. to 10: 30 p.m. today; 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. tomorrow

Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67) and WETA (Channel 26)

Pub Date: 10/05/97

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