Troubles of Biographers: T is for Trustworthy Truman

A-Z List 6, Biographies, came about when I started to read a biography of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris.

And it was boring. 

It struck me as rather astonishing that a biography of Theodore Roosevelt could be boring, so I tried the autobiography. 

And then I got annoyed. Because Morris's biography was nearly a copy of Roosevelt's autobiography. 

I don't mean Morris plagiarized. Everything is properly quoted and cited. But the entire organization of the book, including the presentation of material, was eerily similar. 

I'm aware that Edmund Morris won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Roosevelt. I honestly couldn't figure out why. Is a biography really just a document that strings together quotes and summaries from other sources? Really? 

Because--who wants to read that?  

I started this list to figure out what makes a good biography. One possibility is, A good biography is a good read.

I tried to read Morris's biography because Theodore Roosevelt is a fairly interesting guy. For the letter "T," I decided to read a biography about a figure that interested me very little but was written by a writer I already trusted.

McCullough, David. Truman. Simon & Schuster, 1992. 

I read the first 2/3rds of the book and listened to the last 1/3rd, read by McCullough, a lovely reader (he is the Ken Burns' Civil War documentary narrator). 

And yes, a good read makes a difference. 

Even if I had remained uninterested in Truman, I was enthralled by the biography within the first few chapters. Without getting too bogged down by background, McCullough delineates the South at the turn of the century, World War I, the role of the "party machine" in politics, and other notable events in American society. I gained historical understanding by looking at America through Truman's life.

And I came to appreciate Truman, which I believe is one purpose of a good biography: increased understanding, appreciation, empathy of the titular character. 

Truman was, simply, a good guy with a gentleman's mindset and instinct. He was also somewhat extraordinary. He was capable of using the party machine and even being loyal to Tom Pendergast (to the point where he attended his funeral) without feeling in any way beholden to it or Pendergast for his political decisions. He was capable of admiring Franklin D. Roosevelt (I rather wish he hadn't) without feeling forced to similar courses of action. He also had more integrity in his little pinky than FDR. For one, he knew that politics was a "cesspool." He enjoyed politics, but he dived in with eyes wide open and a full knowledge of what it might do to his own character.

If I was the kind of person who believes that God organizes affairs to override human agency (I'm not [entirely]), I would believe that the abdication of Edward VIII and the placement of Truman as vice-president at the time of FDR's death were divinely mandated circumstances brought about to further the successful wrap-up of World War II. Like far too many leaders--except Churchill--Truman was taken in by Stalin, but Stalin's charisma didn't alter Truman's fundamental belief that both fascism and communism were evils the world needed to stand against. Truman was to his bones a patriot of American democracy, a pro-military man, and an exceptionally hard worker. 

I especially admire him for firing MacArthur. I'm not questioning MacArthur as the proper person to handle the surrender of Japan at the end of World War II, and I'm aware of opposing arguments.  What struck me, however, wasn't MacArthur's unbelievable pompousness (his "farewell" to Congress sounds like a spoof, it is so over-the-top self-indulgent) or the fact that MacArthur--the military leader supposedly defending American democracy--didn't seem to understand military protocol, chain of command, or democracy. 

What struck me was Truman's staunchness. The outcry at Truman's action could rival and surpass Twitter storms now. Truman didn't care. He gave MacArthur multiple chances to come around and then made the proper decision as Commander-in-Chief. 

I listened to this part of the biography--great
story even if you know the outcome!
I have a hard time thinking of any political or business or social media leader who could handle such a storm now without (1) bowing to pressure; (2) going on Twitter and excessively explaining/defending him/herself/themselves. Truman did neither. He knew the decision was right and he was entirely unimpressed by MacArthur's posturing. Truman did his job.

Yet he would have given the man a second chance immediately (before his final decision) if MacArthur had at once indicated an ability to compromise. 

Truman was a man who was entirely a product of his culture yet entirely capable of rising above it because he truly believed in the obligations of integrity. I wouldn't have agreed with him on all occasions--I'm not a big fan of the New Deal--but I would, and do, admire him. 

McCullough argues Truman's case. He is also even-handed; he calmly and fairly points out various sides to a number of issues. He looks at the whole man. 

At the end of the biography, McCullough writes,

Born in the Gilded age, the age of steam and gingerbread Gothic, Truman had lived to see a time of lost certainties and rocket trips to the moon. The arc of his life spanned more change in the world than in any prior period in history. A man of nineteenth-century background, he had had to face many of the most difficult decisions of the unimaginably different twentieth century...He came directly from the people. He was America. In his time, in his experience, from small town to farm to World War in far-off France in 1918; from financial failure after the war to the world of big-city machine politics to the revolutionary years of the New Deal in Washington to the surge of America power during still another terrible World War, he had taken part in the great chronicle of American life as might have a character in a novel. (991-992)

And McCullough delivers that chronicle. His biography isn't a collection of quotes. It is a narrative of a complicated and multi-layered human man. 

Good writing does make a difference! 

Truman with the remarkable Gary Sinise is a decent rendition of the book.

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