Monday, August 22, 2016

Harry S. Truman" by Robert Dallek: A Review

Harry Truman complained constantly about the burdens of the presidency. "Liars and demagogues," in his words, abused him and he had little means to make them "behave." he told his sister in November 1947 that "all the president is, is a glorified public relations man who spends his time flattering, kissing and kicking people to get them to do what they are supposed to do anyway."

He also repeatedly stated his readiness, indeed eagerness, to retire after his term was up. But the truth was that he loved political combat and relished beating opponents who had repeatedly underestimated him. He also believed - as did everyone who has ever run for the office - that he could serve the national well-being better than any of his competitors. And so he resolved to run to become president in his own name in 1948. (68)

If all the Presidents of the 20th Century whose popularity has rebounded the most, no doubt Harry S. Truman is at the top of that list. Truman had the double burden of succeeding a wildly popular and influential President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and did so following his death. Those presidents who inherit the presidency largely confess they feel as if they did not earn the office and the people let them know about it.

For much of his presidency, especially as he left office, Truman was an unpopular leader. His election in 1948 is nothing short of earth-shattering and unexpected. Yet even with being elected President, Truman's popularity only continued to tank until he passed the reigns over to Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Nevertheless, Truman's popularity has climbed over the years. This theme was explored in Robert Dallek's biography simply titled Harry S. Truman and is part the American Presidents series. Dallek is a well known presidential historian and his insight is made evident here.

Unlike the other books I have read in this series, Dallek's biography is dominated by Truman's presidential experience. Typically the American Presidents series, at least those I have read, explore with equal time the childhood, young adult life, presidency, and post-presidency. Dallek does the opposite. In a single chapter, the reader is briefly introduced to Truman's birth, childhood, and early political career. The rest of the book, outside of the epilogue, is dedicated to his years in office. I, for one, prefer Dallek's approach.

As the story unfolds, the author reminds the reader just how unpopular Truman was throughout his presidency, yet today he remains one of the more beloved commander and chiefs of the US in the 20th century. Why? Dallek offers several examples most of which come from the reason of validation. Truman led the way on civil rights long before there was a civil rights movement. Though he could have done more, the reader should not fail to see the courage this took. Likewise, the Truman Doctrine on how to deal with the communist threat was proven correct in 1991 when the Soviet Union eventually collapsed. He ended the second world war and his persona as a simple, everyday America who spoke in plain language with the American people appeals today.

All of this leads Dallek to both introduce and conclude the book with the assertion that Truman should be considered as one of the greatest presidents of the 20th century. The first paragraph of the book says:
Of the eighteen twentieth-century American presidents, beginning with William McKinley and ending with Bill Clinton, only four currently have claims on great or near-great leadership: Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman. Perhaps in time Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton may join this elite group, but at this juncture such a judgment is premature.(1)
This sentiment is repeated at the end of the book, and yet even after reading Dallek's biography, I cannot agree with him. In terms of "great or near-great leadership" (to use his categorization) in the 20th century, no doubt the Roosevelt cousins belong in that discussion. Woodrow Wilson is debatable (his progressive liberalism greatly damaged this country). Ronald Reagan certainly ought to be named with the Roosevelt's and perhaps JFK and Dwight Eisenhower ought to be there. Though Truman was not the worse president of the 20th Century (I'm looking at you Jimmy Carter), I do not believe he belongs among such an elite group of men.

Truman is known as a straight shooter with good character, yet often the opposite comes out. Yes the buck did stop at Truman's desk, but he was a politician who played the game and his primary strategy in 1948 was not to run on vision but fear-mongering.

Regardless, Dallek does offer a helpful introduction to Truman. Though I disagree with his thesis, that does not diminish the rest of the book. When Dallek focuses on Truman the man and the president, his skills as a historian really shine through.

For more biographies on the Presidents
President Barack Obama - "The Audacity of Hope" by Barack Obama: A Review
President George W. Bush - "Decision Points" by George W. Bush: A Review
President George W. Bush - "Rebel in Chief" by Fred Barnes: A Review
President Bill Clinton - "The Natural" by Joe Klein: A Review 
President George H. W. Bush - "41" by George W. Bush: A Review
President George H. W. Bush - "The Quiet Man" by John Sununu: A Review
President Ronald Reagan - "Ronald Reagan" by Dinesh D'Souza
President Ronald Reagan - "Rawhide Down" by Del Quentin Wilber: A Review
President Gerald Ford - "Gerald R. Ford" by Douglas Brinkley: A Review
President Richard Nixon - "The Greatest Comeback" by Pat Buchanan: A Review
President Lyndon B. Johnson - "Lyndon B. Johnson" by Charles Peters: A Review
President John F. Kennedy - "JFK, Conservative" by Ira Stoll: A Review
President John F. Kennedy - "The Kennedy Assassination - 24 Hours After" by Steven Gillon

President John F. Kennedy - "Killing Kennedy" by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard: A Review
President Dwight D. Eisenhower - "Ike: An American Hero" by Michael Korda: A Review
President Harry S. Truman - Harry S. Truman" by Robert Dallek: A Review
President Calvin Coolidge - "Coolidge" by Amity Shlaes" A Review
President Abraham Lincoln - "Abraham Lincoln: A Man of Faith and Courage"
President Abraham Lincoln - "Manhunt" by James L. Swanson: A Review
"The Preacher and the Presidents" by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy: A Review
"Baptism By Fire" by Mark Updegrove: A Review
"The First Family Detail" by Ronald Kessler: A Review
"Double Down" by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann: A Review 

American Experience Documentaries:
Woodrow Wilson: An American Experience 
Lyndon B. Johnson: American Experience
Dwight Eisenhower: An American Experience
Richard Nixon: American Experience
Jimmy Carter: An American Experience
Ronald Reagan: An American Experience
HW Bush: An American Experience  
Clinton: An American Experience
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