Monday, December 16, 2013

Truman by David McCullough

The first fourth of this book is the story of Kansas City, my favorite city in the world, told through the story of Harry S Truman, my favorite president.  Harry and KCMO were alike in many ways - progressive yet also old fashioned.

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"You know how it is when you see the President... He does all the talking, and he talks about what he wants to talk about, and he never talks about anything you want to talk about, so there isn't much you can do."  Harry Truman about FDR.  I hope I'm not like that.

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"More than once in his presidency, Truman would be remembered saying it was remarkable how much could be accomplished if you didn't care who received the credit."  McCullough writes this, and I wanted to know when and where Harry Truman said this.  I couldn't find anything at all about the quote, other than the quote itself.  So I chatted with Ask a Librarian at County of Los Angeles Public Library (I have a card), and they finally sent this response, which I thought was so cool:  

Yesterday you contact instant librarian about a famous quote attributed
President Truman. I spoke to a librarian at the Truman PresidentialLibrary this is what he was able to find:

Thank you for your e-mail request of 12/4/2013. I was able to find thequote on page 564 of David McCullough's 1992 book "Truman." Mr.McCullough is considered a very reputable source for anything related toPresident Truman. He spent 10 years conducting his research for the bookhere from 1982 until the book's release in 1992. Unfortunately,President Truman used this quotation more than once and I was unable tolocate any specific date.

I hope this helps please let me know if there is anything else I can dofor you.

Thank you and have a great day,



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McCullough quoted from one of Harry's "give 'em hell" speeches in 1948:  "Something happens to Republican leaders when they get control of the government...  Republicans in Washington have a habit of becoming curiously deaf to the voice of the people.  They have a hard time haring what the ordinary people of the country are saying.  But they have no trouble at all hearing what Wall Street is saying.  They are able to catch the slightest whisper from big business and the special interests."  The whole speech is here:   Address at the State Capitol in Denver . Although McCullough doesn't quote it, a great line follows:  "The Republican Party today is controlled by silent and cunning men who have a dangerous lust for power and privilege."  Silent and cunning.  This party hasn't really changed much.  Except added some Democrats in name only to the mix.  I think Truman could be describing most of Washington now.

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First, this is probably one of the best biographies ever written.  Even if you hate Harry S Truman and think he was an awful president, the writing is exquisite; this is never, ever a recitation of facts or dates.  It is never "and then this happened"and "then this happened" sort of biography.  Truman is always front and center.  Isn't this the definitely biography of Harry Truman, the definitive biography of biographies?  William Manchester's Winston Churchill's have this feeling, although McCullough brings the secondary characters more to life too - Bess, Margaret, Acheson, etc.  

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Never will there be another president like Harry Truman.  Machine politics don't exist in the same way, for starters - a man can't be handpicked by a boss, not like Pendergast picked Harry.  There isn't a spoils system like there was.  A president also won't leave office poor, ever again.  A former president isn't going to drive across the country with only his wife in the car on a trip. 

He reminds me so much of the old men of the past, my great uncles, even my grandfather.  The small town burghers and farmers and bankers.  


TrumanTruman by David McCullough
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've been satisfactorily plowing through this for a month.  It's my second time to read; the first being many years ago.  It's quite possibly the best biography ever written, certainly the best one I've ever read.  You can hate on Harry Truman, disagree with him, hate the New Deal - but you can't say this is poorly written.  It's exquisitely written; it's never, ever a recitation of dates and days and times and people at parties or in meetings.  Not only is Harry a living, breathing entity on every page, but so too are the secondary folk who McCullough writes about - Mama Truman, Bess and Margaret, Dean Acheson, Sam Rayburn, General Marshall.  I suppose it borders on hagiography at times, but Harry's warts are also there for all to see - his turn of the century racism and sexism, his whole-hearted adoption of the spoils system, his temper, his misplaced trust, his mistakes.  But while I don't want to read all praise, I don't want a hatchet job either, and McCullough includes plenty of the good that Harry Truman did for America.  He was a great president, and this is one of the great books about a president.  It's the definitive biography about Truman, and the definitive biography of biographies.  Depth, breadth, length - all worth the journey.  Less slick snake oil salesmen and more Harry Truman is what we need today.  


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