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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A gem by a master historian, October 17, 2010
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This review is from: Harry S. Truman: The American Presidents Series: The 33rd President, 1945-1953 (Hardcover)
Professor Robert Dallek's HARRY S. TRUMAN is an illuminating and exhilarating read both for those deeply steeped in the Truman story and for those to whom Truman is a little-known figure. Dallek employs politics as the underlying theme that traces both Truman's career and the volatility of an American public that, not infrequently, can swerve far off the course of common sense and of appreciation for the real-world complexities of both domestic change and international vital interests. Dallek's succinct essay provides me valuable insights into the current Tea Party aberration.

Biographer Dallek, who has exhibited keen insights into the personalities and politics of FDR, Nixon, JFK, and LBJ, and Reagan, brings similar acumen to assessing Truman-- the man, the politician, and the president. As a teenager, I stayed up late watching the 1948 election in which Truman confounded the professional pollsters. I am familiar with many of the two dozen books upon which Dallek depends for many of his core facts and anecdotes, including McCullough's TRUMAN, Hamby's MAN OF THE PEOPLE: A LIFE OF HARRY S. TRUMAN, George H. Gallup's THE GALLUP POLL, 1935-1971, and Merle Miller's PLAIN SPEAKING: AN ORAL BIOGRAPHY OF HARRY S. TRUMAN.

I have taught Truman in a college course for nearly twenty years. I am astonished by how accurately Dallek, in 153 pages, synthesizes many complex events. I feel humbled at how often Dallek provides a succinct factual and political insight that had escaped me in my 60+ years of learning about Truman. Most important, Dallek provides a comprehensive, credible assessment of a man and president who, too frequently, has been misunderstood and, years ago, trivialized.

Truman, during his initial decades, seemed a most unlikely person ever to earn a Time cover story, much less the American presidency. His early adult years could be considered a failure, except for his distinguished WW I military service. His love of history, biography, and politics commenced at an early age. His association with Tom Pendergast obliged him to engage in distasteful patronage, while maintaining his personal financial integrity. His improbable ascent from being `Pendergast's boy' in the U. S. Senate to the White House came from his political loyalty, his conscientious work ethic that, among other things, saved the U. S. billions in military contract waste, and from his own personal integrity.

As Dallek illustrates, Truman was no saint, except when it came to personal financial scrupulousness and to women--his wife and mother in law seemed as much comfort to him as was Mary to Abraham Lincoln. Truman often felt frustration. At times he confined this to his diary or to letters that he wrote and then never mailed (his strong hatreds included General McArthur and Richard Nixon). On occasion, when he expressed this anger publicly (his letter to the music critique who panned his daughter's singing is a classic example), Truman diminished his stature and effectiveness.

From an early age, Truman appreciated the nature of politics. During a troublesome period of his presidency, he wrote his daughter that an effective president needed to be "a liar" and a "double-crosser." [Were these qualities he had learned from observing FDR in action?] What comes through clearly in Dallek's account is Truman's basic decency. Despite his many downs and ups, Truman always had a capacity swiftly to get back on track. He also was a quick learner, as evidenced from how he handled his presidency, after the initial freshman months.

Dallek describes several of Truman's core visions. From the outset of his presidency, he sought to rejuvenate the New Deal program. Then, and after the 1948 election, he was stymied both by the mood of the country and by the conservatism of Congress. Several of his boldest moods were a mixture of politics and personal beliefs: the recognition of Israel; his fight against John L. Lewis and his veto of the Taft-Hartley bill, and his Executive Order desegregating the military.

Since Gallup Polls commenced in 1935, no president, including Nixon, has so consistently scored as low as Truman during office. Truman departure from the White House in 1953 was lamented by few. In a brief epilogue, Dallek describes why, nearly sixty years later, Truman is ranked among America's near-great presidents. His Cold War actions, in retrospect, are now generally applauded. Especially after Watergate, his personal integrity became warmly applauded. His concerns for the average American were addressed in subsequent legislation, from LBJ and, most recently, Obama. He was faced with some of the most vexing domestic and international problems that ever confronted an American president. Most historians now agree that Harry `The Buck Stops Here' Truman served his country uncommonly well.

HARRY S. TRUMAN is part of The American Presidents series, initially edited by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and now by Sean Wilentz. So far I have only read one other book in this series: Charles Peters' LYNDON B. JOHNSON, which I also found superb (see my Amazon review).
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