But I’m not referring to Joe Biden. I’m referring to Harry Truman, whose time in the Oval Office is covered in Jeffrey Frank’s The Trials of Harry S. Truman: The Extraordinary Presidency of an Ordinary Man, 1945–1953, a book that, in its timing, acts almost as a blueprint for a liberal president to navigate a challenging world, focused through the prism of a man who was nobody’s real first choice for president and yet forged an envious record.
Frank, a former New Yorker editor, frames his subject in a different way from David McCullough’s completist, Pulitzer Prize–winning doorstopper. It is a humbler, more focused book, with Truman’s pre-presidential life relegated to an extended prologue. This is a character study of an introverted personality in a profession that rewards loud performance. It is an approach that fits his subject: Frank’s depiction of Truman is of a man perpetually outside his comfort zone, preferring bourbon and branch water in his home of Independence, Missouri, to martinis on the DC cocktail circuit. Indeed, one of Truman’s biggest sources of difficulty is his simple inability to fit in. Winston Churchill, on meeting Truman, called him a man of “immense determination. He takes no notice of delicate ground, he just plants his foot down firmly upon it.” Affection but not necessarily respect.
Still, Churchill saw far more of his American counterpart than others did. Truman liked to discuss history and was an admirable musician. Yet most of his encounters ended with him either feeling alienated from his cabinet (the majority of which he carried over from Roosevelt) or disrespected. Like a running gag, people would request that Truman play “The Missouri Waltz” (as Stalin did) or play it for him (as Nixon did) — neither man seeming to care very much that Truman hated that song.
Which is not to say that Truman was alone. Frank spends a large amount of time on Truman’s family life, movingly depicting his marriage to Bess Truman, who loathed Washington and fiercely guarded her privacy. The daughter of a father who died by suicide, she was fearful that the press would dig into her background in order to shame her family. She only appeared for the social season, otherwise spending her time in Missouri, and held but one press conference in her nearly eight years in the role. She was as great a contrast from Eleanor Roosevelt, still working tirelessly in activism, as their husbands were from each other. Truman defended her choice, chastising the press for their focus on Bess rather than him, although Frank also makes it clear that Truman’s own hostilities toward the press played a part. He’d long been angry that he had not been allowed to bury his parents in peace.
It would be easy to paint Truman as a man out of his element and depth, with his tendency for bluntness creating headaches for the people in charge of his public image. He also had a weakness for tall tales. An aide wrote that Truman’s recollections “frequently did not square with the recollections of others who were present.” But being out of his element is precisely what made him a much stronger president than he might have been. He did not pretend to have expertise that he didn’t, trusting George Marshall on foreign affairs and for the most part keeping FDR’s cabinet intact, not to preserve continuity but because he respected them. Rather than play the genial patrician as FDR did with foreign leaders, he was blunt, and it served him well: he refused to be intimidated by Stalin even when the Soviet leader sent him a telegram chiding him for his lack of decorum.
Never did Truman’s flinty way with language serve him better than the time he ran for reelection. Coming off 16 years of Democratic control and the end of a world war, almost every pundit predicted that he would fall as Churchill had, simply because the time seemed ripe for something new. And against Thomas Dewey and Earl Warren, a ticket that, while less populist, had several progressive bona fides, it seemed inevitable that he would lose. Yet Truman “seemed remarkably able to shrug off the possibility that he might not even be nominated.” Dewey lost in an upset, and nobody but Truman seemed to have seen it coming. When you study the famous photo of him holding the Chicago Daily Tribune with the erroneous headline screaming “Dewey Defeats Truman,” it’s not a smile of surprise but a cocky grin.
No deed, and no amount of cockiness, however, gets more analysis than Truman’s dealing with General Douglas MacArthur, whom he fired for insubordination. Though MacArthur’s life and legacy have been significantly complicated over time (it is not for nothing that William Manchester titled his biography American Caesar), it is easy to forget how beloved he was in his time — and how dangerous. After his triumph in the Philippines and the Pacific Theater, MacArthur was tapped to run the war in Korea, and he remained popular even as the United States and United Nations–authorized troops were losing. It led him to propose perhaps the most terrifying idea in the history of warfare: the plan to drop dozens of atomic bombs in Northern China. This would have killed millions of people, poisoned an enormous chunk of land, and made the atomic bomb a conventional weapon of warfare.
The ensuing crisis of authority, Frank argues, was the pivotal point of Truman’s presidency: a rogue general threatening to usurp him. Truman stripped him of his command, demanded his retirement, and ensured nuclear weapons would not be used in the conflict. At the time, many people were certain this was political suicide: MacArthur could pivot his fame and reputation into a serious run for the presidency. This did not happen: MacArthur, having spent decades away from the United States, blew his credibility in an overhyped speaking tour. No longer the “great hunk of God in the flesh” praised by Congressman Dewey Short, MacArthur looked like what he really was: “[A] seventy-one-year-old-man with an undisguised comb-over, declaiming with studied theatricality.”
Frank portrays Truman so well that the book’s ending feels like an anticlimax. Truman left office with one of the lowest presidential approval ratings ever recorded, remaining in the basement until George W. Bush put himself there with the Iraq War and the Great Recession. Truman’s problems were multiple: he faced legislative failures (a try at universal health care fell through, and the Taft-Hartley union-busting act passed over his veto); the Korean War was ending in stalemate, if not outright defeat; and voters wanted change after two decades of Democratic rule. But perhaps most obvious, Truman had bad luck with the rhythm of the presidency’s relationship with broader American society. He was a man who had to initiate great change in a time when his constituents were ready for tranquility.
It is remarkable how much he accomplished despite this. Truman set the terms for the post–World War II alliances and determined how the Cold War would be fought for decades. He began the government’s response to the Civil Rights movement by desegregating the armed forces. And when Medicare passed in 1965, Truman was given the first card in recognition of his pioneering efforts in creating a health-care safety net.
He was a private, ordinary man: the last president not to have gone to college, a man who was chosen to be vice president for lack of a better option. He took hell from all sides and left, if not popular, with some everyday dignity. He and Bess departed Washington by themselves in their own ’53 Chrysler, staying in modest motor courts and unaccompanied by security on the way home to Missouri. Frank has made a case for a man who, when given the responsibility of the entire country, was able to thread many needles, based on personal confidence, trust in the right people, and healthy relationships with family and friends.
Henry Dykstal is a graduate of Lawrence University and is currently a student in the arts and cultural leadership program at the University of Minnesota.