Merle Miller’s Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography Of Harry S. Truman

plain-speakingWe are once again approaching the close of an American election season, distinguished for the utter disdain and distrust the citizenry have for both candidates. One applicant is thought to lie with every breath; the other is said to have no higher guiding principle than the pursuit of power – and I am forever confusing which is which. Looking to escape from my pessimism, and eager for any evidence that it was not always thus, I picked up a book long ago recommended to me by my father, Merle Miller’s “oral biography” of Harry Truman, Plain Speaking. Miller is himself barely present in the book, offering only the occasional commentary on top of the questions he asks of Truman and his friends and colleagues, but his life story is no doubt important to the book’s development. By 1962, when Miller sat down for hundreds of hours of interviews with the former President for what was initially conceived as a television series, he had spent the better part of the post-war years on Senator Joseph McCarthy’s infamous blacklist. Plain Speaking was finally published in 1974, a dozen years after the initial interviews and a few short months before Richard Nixon would resign in disgrace; it remained on the bestseller lists for more than a year. When the American public had lost all faith in its leadership, they were comforted by this book’s reassuring reminder of Truman’s example, and I picked it up in a similar spirit.

This is not a systematic biography of Truman, in that it does not attempt to tell his life story through narration; rather, Miller acts as Truman’s Boswell, reporting his words, wit and wisdom to us and thereby giving us a sense of Harry Truman’s character. Truman’s words, in particular, give insight into his person, for he is always direct, always matter-of-fact. As Miller puts it, “Harry’s words were never fancy, but they were never obscure either. You never had to try to figure out what Harry was up to; he told you what he was up to.” Such “plain speaking” can easily be characterized by detractors as simple-mindedness, and early in Truman’s political career, such was the recurring criticism of him. Merle’s biography makes a mockery of this notion. The young Truman read voraciously, devouring every volume in his small-town library, and, like Lincoln before him, made a special commitment to memorizing works by the philosophers and writers most dear to him. He was also something of an amateur historian (when asked what he would have done, had he never become president, he unhesitatingly replies that he would teach history), fond of repeating that “the only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know,” and quick to quote from Marcus Aurelius in particular.

If he is straightforward in what he talks about, he is also reticent about all things personal: his childhood, his relationship with his parents, his marriage and his wife – all are touched on but never explored in any depth. Such was the result of an upbringing in rural Missouri, where people are as tight-lipped about themselves as they are friendly and hospitable to complete strangers. One of the great questions of his presidency, the source of so much of his enduring fascination to us, is how such a man succeeded in Washington, where plain speaking is so often a liability. As Judge Albert Ridge, one of Truman’s friends from his military service in the First World War, put it: “Harry Truman never learned to put on a public face, and he never had a public manner. He just never learned how to be anybody except himself.” He’s worth quoting, to get a sense of just how direct he can be. On experts: “I knew all about experts. I said than expert was a fella who was afraid to learn anything new because then he wouldn’t be an expert anymore”; on populist politicians: “You take a fella that carries on too much about the pee-pul – it’s like what I told you about folks that pray too loud. You better get home and lock the smokehouse”; on Richard Nixon: “A shifty-eyed, goddamn liar.”

Truman’s presidency began tragically, with the death of Franklin Roosevelt, but it went on to encompass some of the century’s most defining moments, from the destruction wrought by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the rejuvenation of Europe enabled by the Marshall Plan, the founding of Israel and the start of the Korean and Cold Wars. At home, his popularity was crippled by two issues, in particular: his support of civil rights issues, including the desegregation of the military, and his firing of General Douglas MacArthur, who was regarded at the time as an American hero. On both these issues, the passage of time has vindicated Truman and led to a positive reappraisal of his presidency, and Merle Miller’s Plain Speaking played no small part in that reevaluation.