Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Book Review: Truman by David McCullough

Harry Truman is an interesting character, and David McCullough presents an engaging picture of our 33rd president. McCullough is thorough and readable as he presents a chronological narrative of Truman’s life. Although a credentialed historian, McCullough avoids academic gobbledygook and knows when to end a sentence. He writes in a clean, straightforward fashion that invites the reader to turn the page.

When McCullough writes a biography, he investigates every nook and cranny of the subject’s life until he knows everything knowable about the individual. Attention to detail reveals the real person behind the public facade, but this fixation on the subject produces two flaws in McCullough books: they’re too long and the supporting cast are often cardboard cutouts.

At 1,120 pages, Truman is a long book. A very long book. After gathering all this information, McCullough doesn't know what to leave out. The 1948 presidential race was historic, but after dozens of pages, I came to believe we would witness every whistle-stop. This is just one example of overwhelming detail. Truman would have remained a tome if cut by 200 pages, but the book would have been a more powerful biography.

McCullough’s focus on the subject of his biographies gives slight notice to other prominent people. The collection of great or notorious leaders during the World War II period probably rivaled the Revolution. At these rare times in history, collective greatness molds and/or reinforces the accomplishments of each individual player. (Doris Kearns Goodwin is a master at capturing the dynamics and undercurrents of formidable characters at formidable moments.) We learn everything about the character and actions of Truman, but Franklin D. Roosevelt, George C. Marshall, Winston Churchill, Dwight Eisenhower, and the members of his cabinet and staff rotate around Truman with all the animation of carousel ponies. We have faint idea what Roosevelt thought about Truman or why he picked him to be vice president and then chose to ignore him after the election. FDR knew his health was failing, and handpicked a relatively obscure junior senator as his successor. Why? McCullough does not give us much insight because we see events only from Truman’s perspective. 

Truman was an enjoyable read and a highly professional biography of one of our best presidents. Despite my grumblings, I read every word of this fine book and returned to reading it at every opportunity. I would highly recommend it … supplemented with other history books about this pivotal period in our history.

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