Up-Close and `Down to the Ground'
David McCullough discusses his Truman study, which is more human story than history text
WEST TISBURY, MASS. — IN 1956, outside the St. George Hotel in Brooklyn, a junior writer for Sports Illustrated leaving a subway once caught an accidental glimpse of Harry Truman slipping out of a limousine. The young writer had never seen a president up close.
"Not only was he in color, but he was in vivid color with these bright pink cheeks and oversize steel-blue eyes behind his glasses. He looked so human. He was not bigger than life," says author David McCullough.
"I might have tapped him on the shoulder and said `I thought you should know, Mr. President, that in 30 years I'm going to write your biography, and I'm just wondering if there's anything you want to tell me in advance.' "
In 1,000 pages, David McCullough now tells the story of Harry Truman. He acknowledges that he was tempted to begin at the end or at some significant funeral or gruesome battle. He could have smartly grabbed the attention of readers with a snappy preface about the cold war or Hiroshima and later twirled some irony at Japan's economic recovery. But he didn't, because he says it would not fit the man he had come to know so well over the 10 years he worked on the book.
"I did not want to be tricky or contrived or in fashion because that's not the way Harry Truman was. I wanted the book to unfold like `David Copperfield' and the old style biographies," he says.
Readers with only a Jeopardy game show grasp of history already know the main plot points of "Truman." Yet with the same deftness Ken Burns and Geoffrey Ward used in the PBS television series "The Civil War" to keep viewers wondering whether Lee would surrender to Grant, McCullough compels his readers to decide along with Truman to bomb Hiroshima, recognize Israel, and enter the Korean War.
"I want you to feel what happened. I want you to feel the atmosphere of that time, the very moments when decisions were made, the kinds of words used, the very words used when I can. You won't find any present-day phrases - no `bottom lines,' no `viable alternatives.' That would be too jarring. The importance of narrative writing is to put you there, not tell you what to think," says McCullough.
Truman was measured in the press and by his peers for what he was not. And mostly he was not Franklin Roosevelt. He never went to college, had no chic hobbies, and failed as a haberdasher. Farmer, bank clerk, and country judge were the first entries on his resume.
If he had been born a generation later, at times he would have qualified for one of FDR's New Deal social programs - though he likely would never have applied. But Truman could muck out a cow barn, stay put in a shelled World War I trench when other officers ran, build a decent county road under budget, and keep promises. That, says McCullough, made him unique among presidents of this century.
"And he also had a keen sense of history, not only his nation's, but his own personal history. He knew where he came from, where he was, and where he would go back to. Truman knew that in the long run, immediate, self-serving and opportunistic success doesn't matter. The judgment of history is the one that counts."
How has history rated that tenure? Truman would himself argue that he was not a great president. But seen after 40 years, the Truman era marked the watershed years of the century, McCullough says.
"He was responsible for the Marshall Plan, NATO, the Berlin airlift. He first recognized the state of Israel, started the CIA, and established the Defense Department and the National Security Council. It was Truman who sent the first civil-rights message to Congress and desegregated the military. He fired [Gen. Douglas] MacArthur and faced enormous public outrage, talk of impeachment, but upheld civilian control of the military. All of this vast concentration of power happened in his presidency," he says .
McCullough is best when he is up-close and - in Truman's words - "down to the ground." In quoting one eight-word up-close exchange with Eleanor Roosevelt, he aptly frames Truman the man:
"He steps off the elevator and she says to him, `Harry, the president is dead.' At first he's speechless, but then he asks, `Is there anything I can do for you?' He wasn't thinking about himself. The entire world was just dropped on him and he asked what he could do for her," says McCullough.
Deeper behind the scenes, McCullough shows the influence of Truman's haberdashery partner, Eddie Jacobson, on the decision to grant de facto recognition to the state of Israel. And by unfolding the biography with glamorless players - secret service agents or childhood friends of Truman's daughter, Margaret - he keeps "Truman" a story and not a textbook.
McCullough pounded "Truman" out on an old manual typewriter in his toolshed study on the island of Martha's Vineyard. His barn holds books - not hay bales - many collected for writing "Truman." But his research took him often to Washington and the vast manuscript collection of the Truman Library in Independence, Mo., where, according to McCullough, "The most reliable sources were found: the letters of a 19th-century man to his wife, mother, and friend, former Secretary of State Dean Acheson."
Speaking in his book-lined restored colonial farmhouse, at times McCullough sounds more like cultural sociologist Joseph Campbell than the current president of the American Society of Historians.
"I don't see myself as a historian. I'm a writer and a storyteller - and `Truman' is the story of `everyman' in trouble. Whether by fate, or history or luck, he gets himself into jams again and again.... He is an ordinary man faced with extraordinary problems. He is the part Jimmy Stewart plays in American movies," he says.
"The 20th century was the era of technology, of difficult, costly and specialized education - none of which Truman had. The country went from a small-town, agrarian and insular nation to a world power with all the newfound responsibility conferred by this new technology. And he had to lead that country and make those decisions for which he had not been prepared. And though he comes from a nontechnical, nonindustrial 19th-century background, he is more than sufficient. And why? He knows who he is. He does n't have to confer with his consultants to know how he feels about something," says McCullough.
In his living room, McCullough's admiration for Truman wears no camouflage. But in his biography, he writes with an even hand.
Although he captures the quality of the man as much as the atmosphere of the time, McCullough dispels the folk-hero mythology lingering around Truman.
"Truman is both the best and worst of us," he says. "He isn't only the nice good boy Harry Truman from Norman Rockwell Independence, Mo. He's also from tough, crude, gangster-town Kansas City - from a tradition of segregation."
Born in the age of steam when Missouri was the western edge of the American frontier, Truman died in the age of the hydrogen bomb in what had become a middle American town.
Leaving the White House with only a $100-a-month Army pension, he went home to the farm - like his hero the mythic Roman warrior Cincinnatus who put down his sword and took up his plowshare. Decades earlier in one of many courting letters to young Bess Wallace, farmer Truman wrote, "Who knows, maybe I'll be like Cincinnatus."