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Up-Close and `Down to the Ground'

David McCullough discusses his Truman study, which is more human story than history text

By John BudrisSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 12, 1992



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.

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"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 .