DEAN ACHESON, secretary of state during President Truman's second term (1949-1953), has been studied by historians, and he recounted his eventful years at the State Department in his own Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, ``Present at the Creation'' (1969). These works have focused on the statesman's public life and achievements, with little attention to the private man. Now from Acheson's son comes an affectionate collection of ``snapshots'' of the man behind the public figure.
The book offers a fresh perspective on the famous diplomat who, along with Truman, George Marshall, and other great leaders of the early cold-war era, truly did establish a ``new world order.'' Yet ``Acheson Country'' contains only small surprises. The qualities Acheson brought to his roles as a husband, father, friend, and employer were but variations on those that distinguished him as a statesman.
We learn that he was an ``intimidating'' but fair disciplinarian; insisted on orderliness in the household; was ``impatient at the fussing of children and regarded highly the duty of parents to keep children inaudible;'' and appears to have been wholly conventional in dividing family responsibilities with his wife.
He was not a remote, authoritarian figure in the home, however. ``Dad was always a strong family man,'' his son writes, ``that is to say, he cared for his family, held deep affection for its members, and made numerous sacrifices for their collective and individual welfares.''
All of this is fairly predictable from Dean Acheson's public persona. More unexpected are David Acheson's vignettes of his father's lighter side, his humor, playfulness, and enthusiasms. We learn, for instance, that this sometimes imperious man had ``a lively sense of the ridiculous, a gift of mimicry, a talent for droll stories. He really got into a role, using eyes, eyebrows, bass or treble voice, and extravagant manual gestures.''
Acheson could blow hot and cold in his outside interests. Some, like woodworking and a Mr. Toad avidity for flashy cars, lasted throughout his life. Perhaps most surprising is this cerebral and somewhat dandified man's taste for hard, sweaty labor on the Maryland farm that he owned for 50 years. Deep into middle age, he loved to spend weekends clearing brush, repairing roads, and building fences at Harewood Farm (dragooning his children into the work).
This witty book about a fascinating man is a pleasure to read. Yet for all its delights, there are drawbacks. One is the author's reliance on humorous anecdotes. The tales are good, but too pithy and numerous. The effect is portraiture by punch line.
More disappointing is that the book lacks penetration. Droll, upbeat, and self-consciously charming, it presents a man who in his private life was every inch the paragon that he was as a public servant. Few faults or frailties are ascribed to the author's father - save the kinds of minor eccentricities usually regarded as endearing.
Surely a man as intelligent and complex as Dean Acheson had depths and shadows of character that a son would be uniquely positioned to observe and that a son could, with the experience and wisdom of his own advancing years, insightfully probe without betraying filial devotion.
Regrettably, David Acheson chose to write simply an entertainment about his illustrious father. Still, as entertainments go, it's of a high order.