Give-'em-hell Harry

MAN OF THE PEOPLE: A Life of Harry S Truman by Alonzo L Hamby, OUP pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
HARRY S TRUMAN left the White House in 1953 a failure, his approval rating the lowest in history. He had proposed a national health plan the Congress dismissed as a socialist nightmare. He had cashiered one of the most popular military leaders in American history. In an age of hysterical reactionary politics, he was a stubborn liberal who initiated the civil rights movement by desegregating the armed forces.

A generation later, Truman had been transformed. By 1975, the stumbling incompetent who was a threat to his country had fallen into the vat of history and emerged a centrist hero. Communities all over the country rushed to rename streets and public buildings in his honour. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton both claimed him as a political ancestor.

Rich material for a biographer. Yet Alonzo Hamby prefaces this story by describing similarities between his own background and that of America's 33rd president. They both claim Missouri ancestry by way of Kentucky stock, he says. They both grew up in unwaveringly Democratic homes in small- town America.

Hamby should have gone further. They both followed popular giants in their fields: Truman assumed the Presidency on the death of Franklin D Roosevelt with the war in Europe at an end and a vast national government in place to regulate the strong and protect the weak; Hamby produced his biography two years after David McCullough won the Pulitzer Prize for his best-selling Truman, celebrating the Everyman who stumbled into power.

Here the author and his subject do diverge. Truman rose to confront the issues of the first modern American Presidency: the atomic bomb, Soviet imperialism, the creation of Israel, the reconstruction of Europe and Japan, the birth of the civil rights movement. Hamby, on the other hand, descends into a ponderous academic review of the data, from who owned what portion of the family farm, to how many episodes of a television documentary series Truman produced in his last years. This "Life of Harry S Truman", as it is subtitled, certainly is exhaustive, and mostly lifeless.

Hamby reviews the record at a laboratory pace, with all the passion of the scientific method. Writing with a tin ear for the details that would have brought the times to life, he dutifully chronicles the failures of a young entrepreneur: the lead-mine operator, the gas driller, the banker, the farmer, the insurance broker, the haberdasher. He reviews the courtship with Bess letter by letter. He trudges along with Truman to France as an artillery officer in the Vosges.

The same style pervades the reporting of Truman's election campaigns. Hamby dwells on district-by-district results, the kind of details that a Missouri political operative might thrive on. He exhibits little feel for the people who cast the votes. We learn plenty about the roadworks contracts Truman handled as a young county official, less about the Marshall Plan and the battle to stop the Communists in Iran and Greece, subjects somewhat more significant in both the life of Truman and the history of the human race. Hamby is positively sterile when it comes to a Europe in ruins in 1945, or to a Hiroshima obliterated by the first atomic bomb.

Few scholarly writers venture into the field of biography these days, Hamby claims: they abandon it instead to popularisers who reduce the historical process to the interplay of great men. Oh, for a few great men in these pages, or even for a reduction of the pages.

Truman often captured American hearts and votes with one-liners that flattened the opposition, the kind of dog-bite that earned him the nickname "Give-'em-hell Harry". Campaigning for John F Kennedy in 1960, he declared: "If you vote for Nixon, you ought to go to hell." Had Hamby made better use of Truman's own words, he might have given us a richer - and briefer - biography.