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MAN OF THE PEOPLE by Alonzo L. Hamby

MAN OF THE PEOPLE

A Life of Harry S. Truman

By Alonzo L. Hamby

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-19-504546-7
Publisher: Oxford Univ.

 A game attempt by historian Hamby (Ohio Univ.) to replace the Oval Office bantamweight of political iconography with a more ambitious and self-doubting but able steward of the presidency. A self-described sissy who ran away from boyhood fights, Truman only managed to carve out an independent identity after the death of his demanding father by braving enemy fire as a WW I captain, winning longtime love Bess Wallace, and latching onto the Pendergast political machine in Kansas City. So wounded was he by this struggle to achieve respect and to remain personally honest in his compromised political environment that he would frequently suffer from exhaustion, unleash his fury in memos never sent to the offending parties, and diminish his presidential stature with erratic outbursts. In old age, Truman would gild events with nostalgic embellishments, such as an account of a 1920s Missouri campaign in which he faced down a Ku Klux Klan attempt at armed intimidation. Yet Hamby also celebrates Truman's presidency for the accomplishments usually hailed by historians, notably civil rights (in which Truman's better instincts about equality before the law won out over southern prejudice) and his defense of Western Europe as the Iron Curtain descended. Perhaps in reaction to David McCullough's Truman (1992), which he criticizes for failing to provide historical perspective, Hamby includes excellent analyses of Truman's difficulties in keeping together the loose New Deal coalition and his vacillation before recognizing Israel. Yet the author sometimes misplaces emphasis (e.g., he gives as much space to Truman's early venture capital fiascoes as to his 1948 ``whistle-stop campaign''), he provides no background on the key decision to desegregate the armed forces, and occasionally jumps to conclusions. A cool, highly nuanced examination of Truman's cultural and political milieus, but sadly lacking in the pace and narrative shape of McCullough's Pulitzer Prizewinning biography.