What Made Harry Truman Tick

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 24, 2012 | Go to article overview

What Made Harry Truman Tick


Byline: David Wilezol, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Aida Donald's Citizen Soldier: A Life of Harry S. Truman doesn't try to do too much. It doesn't have to. Truman has been the subject of several expansive biographies in the last few decades, most notably one by David McCullough. So it is to Ms. Donald's credit that Citizen Soldier checks in at 239 pages, excluding introduction, notes and acknowledgments.

The brevity of this biography serves Ms. Donald's aim of filling in a specific gap in Truman scholarship. She succeeds. Where Citizen Soldier differs from other Truman biographies is in Ms. Donald's admittance that she is more inclined to interpret Truman's life psychologically than other biographers of the president. What this means is not absolutely clear, but Ms. Donald has placed a special emphasis on her analysis of the Pickwick Papers, letters Truman wrote to himself during his ascension through the vile Kansas City political machine of the 1920s and '30s that have only recently been made available to the public. Ms. Donald wants to know how a man historically perceived to be full of unflappable dignity and goodness adopted such a Manichaean approach to politics.

Ultimately, says Ms. Donald, the Truman of the 1920s was a man torn between behaving ethically and having to be minimally corrupt. The historical record bears it out. The same Truman who turned a blind eye to thefts of $10,000, and even $1 million from the public treasury when he was a county judge was never suspected by anyone, even political enemies, of personally dipping into the public coffers or accepting a bribe. As Ms. Donald makes clear, Truman's consistently bare-bones living indicates that the man never got rich off politics until he started drawing the annual presidential salary of $75,000 per year. As late as 1940, Sen. Truman and his family were living in poverty, with his mother-in-law and daughter sharing a room in their two-bedroom Washington apartment. Harry rode the bus to work.

But even in exposing Truman's moral rationalizations, Ms. Donald doesn't undercut those aspects of Truman's life that have rightfully made him a symbol of everyman America. Ms. Donald unveils the origins of Truman's famous virtue in the course of the first 75 pages. A homespun product of the Missouri plains, Truman more Roman than Greek ) failed at farming, fought in World War I, dropped out of college, was perpetually in debt and endured numerous failures as a businessman, culminating in the disastrous operation of a men's clothing store in 1921, when he was 37. …

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