A few weeks ago I finished David McCullough’s Pulitzer prize-winning biography. I started the book mainly because I enjoyed McCullough’s history of the Brooklyn Bridge, and when I find an author I like I try to read his other books.
Even though I think some of Truman’s policies as President were misguided, and I despise some of his campaign tactics (I have in mind the egregious populist speeches during his presidential campaign), I still find myself liking him as a person.
For one thing, he genuinely cared about people. Truman’s whistle-stop campaign trips, which his staff found exhausting, never seemed to tire him because he so much loved being able to talk to people face-to-face. Truman was pioneering in pushing rights for minorities even when it was politically dangerous to do so (Strom Thurmond almost split apart the Democratic Party over race issues, running against Truman in 1948).
The 1948 campaign brought out another trait of Truman I admire: an imperturbable sense of optimism. Almost everyone including his own staff thought he would lose the 1948 election (you’ve probably seen that famous picture of Truman holding aloft the Chicago Tribune headline “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN”). But Truman was convinced he would win, and he even had fairly accurate predications about how the electoral votes would go. More generally, he was optimistic about the democratic process even though he knew well how treacherous people can be. In other words, his knowledge of mankind’s sin nature didn’t make him a cynic; I wish I knew his formula.
Truman’s honesty and integrity are what great men of his time, such as Winston Churchill and George Marshall, admired about him. Unlike his predecessor, FDR, who would tell people whatever he thought that person should hear, Truman prided himself on his “straight-talk.” Often he did what he thought was right, though enormously unpopular. For example, Truman fired Douglas MacArthur when the rest of the country worshiped the man.
McCullough doesn’t try to hide Truman’s blemishes. Truman had a bad temper; usually he would vent by writing a long letter to the offending party and never sending it (something I’ve tried a couple of times now with email and with success). But in a famous incident he actually mailed a letter to a man who had unfavorably reviewed the professional singing of Truman’s daughter, a letter in which Truman threatened to beat up the reviewer. At first Truman’s daughter was certain that her father would not use such language.
I wish McCullough had better accounted for Truman’s campaign demagoguery. Uncharacteristically, he made personal attacks and played loose with the facts. Was it just an at-any-costs attempt to get votes? Or was he overly caught up in the spirit of competition?
I’d also like to better understand the cronyism of his early political career. Truman’s rise to the Senate occurred largely in thanks to Missouri Democratic machine boss Tom Pendergast, and all his life Truman had the idea that party loyalty should be rewarded with appointments. I wonder if that way of thinking was less objectionable during his time than ours.
I get the sense that McCullough thinks one’s religious beliefs are mostly incidental, as we get few glimpses of Truman’s. In his early married life he was an Episcopalian, but in Washington as President he attended a Baptist church. Was there any particular reason for the switch? Was religion important to Truman’s ethical thinking, or was it just a social event? McCullough doesn’t tell us.
Finally, I enjoyed reading about Truman’s friendship with Dean Acheson. The men were quite different with regards to education and personality, but they had a warm relationship even years after Truman was in office.
Many circumstances beyond Truman’s career brought him to the presidency: Pendergast’s anointing, the 1944 political landscape, and FDR’s death. But he was a Horatio Alger kind of president: mostly self-educated, from the Heartland, plain-spoken, and a man of integrity. It’s hard to imagine that any time soon his successors will be like him.