HARRY S. TRUMAN: A Life by Robert H. Ferrell


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An estimable biography that portrays Truman, the patron saint of beleaguered pols, as an ordinary American but an extraordinary president. As narrative, this biography cannot begin to compete with David McCullough's Truman (1992). However, historian Ferrell (Indiana Univ., Bloomington; Ill-Advised, 1992, etc.) partly makes up for this with his mastery of Truman sources (he has written or edited eight previous books on the president) and his shrewd analysis of the workings of executive power. He shows how Truman, with his Missouri twang and his background as the product of Kansas City's Pendergast machine, seemed smaller than life, even grubby, compared to the patrician FDR. But he believes that Truman surpassed his predecessor in decisiveness, veracity, and stamina. Unpretentious and optimistic, Truman was temperamentally well equipped to lead the nation as it was being challenged by communism abroad. Yet Truman, now one of our most beloved presidents, saw his approval rating dip to only 23% a year before he left office -- one point lower than Richard Nixon's when he resigned. Ferrell attributes this at least partly to depleted energy, but other factors may have come into play, such as his loyalty to corrupt cronies, a GOP congressional bloc that saw the opportunity to gain political capital by Red-baiting, and his method of dealing solely with a few congressional leaders. Ferrell's portrait differs significantly in only two ways from the current wisdom: He portrays a president who thought more deeply, both before and long after the fact, about the ramifications of dropping the atomic bomb than he is generally given credit for; and he makes a bigger issue of Truman's addition of his wife, Bess, to his senatorial payroll (an ethical lapse that he feared would doom his chances for the vice presidency in 1944). An incisive study of a gutsy underdog who rose to the occasion.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1994
ISBN: 0826210503
Page count: 512pp
Publisher: Univ. of Missouri