Not So Common Man

Truman: The Rise to Power

by Richard Lawrence Miller
McGraw-Hill, 536 pp., $19.95

Truman

by Roy Jenkins
Harper and Row, 232 pp., $17.95

Among the forty men who have been presidents of the United States, no one’s reputation with the general public and with opinion makers, not even Richard Nixon’s or Warren Harding’s, has had wider fluctuations than Harry Truman’s, starting with his eight years (minus three-and-a-half months) in the White House. Truman had everyone’s sympathy when, as he said to reporters, “the house, the stars and all the planets” fell on him with Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, after he had been virtually forced by FDR into accepting the Democratic vice-presidential nomination nine months before. His modest demeanor and expressed determination to continue the “Roosevelt policies” (if only he had been able to find out what they were!), and the record he had made in the Senate as chairman of a special committee to investigate the national defense program (his inquiries into war expenditures had saved hundreds of millions of tax dollars), resulted in an approval rating of 87 percent in the Gallup public opinion poll in mid-May 1945. This was “three points higher than Roosevelt…ever achieved,” Roy Jenkins reminds us in Truman, a tightly composed portrait of a man he greatly admires.

The image Truman then projected was of the “Common Man,” the “Average Man.” Certainly he was average in appearance—of average height, a face in the crowd distinguished chiefly by a pair of abnormally thick-lensed glasses without which, as he said, he was “blind as a bat.” He was a poor public speaker. He had a flat, twangy voice with a Missouri accent that seemed designed to prevent eloquence, and he was further handicapped, whenever he delivered a prepared address, by his extreme nearsightedness, for if he looked up from the lectern he was likely to lose his place in the manuscript. But if he lacked utterly the charm, the brilliance, the capacity for inspirational leadership of the man he succeeded in the White House, he also lacked the shiftiness, the guileful role-playing, which, in the eyes of millions, had rendered his predecessor so dangerously mistaken on occasion, and untrustworthy.

Harry Truman put on no airs, made no effort to “create an impression,” except insofar as he felt compelled to try to do so as representative of the power and majesty of the United States. (Witness the famous photograph of him at Potsdam in 1945, seated between Churchill and Stalin as FDR had been at Teheran and Yalta. Churchill appears relaxed, bored, a bit annoyed; Stalin appears relaxed and bored, but on the verge of a sly little Oriental smile; Harry Truman appears emphatically not bored but so tense in the effort to be presidential that he is about to break into pieces—his chin down as his head is thrust back in a way that makes for a double chin, a jutting jaw, and, of the tightly closed mouth, a hard grim line.) He was normally content to be his plain self, forthright in his dealings with men and with issues …

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