Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman

1974, later 1974 Berkley [sic] edition
Merle Miller
Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman
Original price $1.95, purchase price unknown
Very worn paperback with every page loose from the binding

At the time Truman left office, he had an approval rating of 22%.  Even at the time that Miller interviewed the ex-president in late 1961 and early '62, none of the TV networks wanted to air a program about "that old man."  But a dozen years later, in the wake of Watergate and many politicians (of both parties) doing the opposite of "plain speaking," Harry was looking very good in comparison.  So Miller published this book, which became a best-seller.  Then in '95, historian Robert Ferrell claimed that Miller had fabricated many of the quotes.

Be that as it may, the book is still a fascinating read, a glimpse into the mind and occasionally heart of one of our most down-to-earth leaders.  I don't agree with everything Truman did, particularly the use of the Bomb, but he seems to have been generally sensible and honest.  He also kept his modesty, while still being proud of his accomplishments.  He appears to have been more progressive on Civil Rights than any President before LBJ.  (He did use the N-word however.)  And on capital punishment, well, he didn't even want the death penalty for his failed assassin.  He was a man of forgiveness, except in a few cases, notably Nixon, whom he pegged as unscrupulous from the get-go and disbelieved could ever become a "new Nixon."  Truman died in December of '72, before much about Watergate had come out, so his comments on there never having been a corrupt president are especially ironic.  He also was against wire-tapping (unlike FDR), and he thought by the early '60s that the CIA had gotten out of hand.

Unless Miller made the whole thing up.  If so, then this is an impressive work of fiction.  His Truman show is all of a piece, presenting a consistent if complex character.  He even has Harry scold him and tease him!  I'd like to think at least some of it was true, that Truman was part history teacher (his thoughts on, for instance, the "five weak presidents" are fascinating), part farmer (after the presidency, he helped a woman herd her hogs even though he was late for an appointment), part shy gentlemen (he seems to have only been comfortable talking to women he was related to), and part salty WWI Army captain.

I haven't read Ferrell's book, Harry S. Truman and the Modern American Presidency, but I can't imagine it's anywhere near this good.

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