Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman Book Review
President Harry S. Truman
The book, Plain Speaking, an Oral Biography, is a collection of observations by Merle Miller who invested hundreds of hours in one-on-one interviews not only with the former President, but with his staff, family members, former teachers, and a variety of every-day people who knew him before 1935 when he first went off to Washington. They spoke of his honesty, integrity, ethics and the kind of man who was held in high esteem.
33rd President of the United States
Son of a mule trader and farmer, Harry S. Truman was born in Lamar, Missouri on May 8, 1884. Elected to the Senate in 1934 after serving as a presiding judge in Jackson County, "he served on the Senate Appropriations Committee, which was responsible for allocating tax money for Roosevelt’s New Deal projects, and the Interstate Commerce Committee, which oversaw railroads, shipping, and interstate transport."
Truman volunteered for duty in World War I at the age of 33 despite being older than the age limit for the draft and eligible for exemption as a farmer. "He helped organize his National Guard regiment, called into service in the 129th Field Artillery and was promoted to captain in France and assigned Battery D, which was known for being the most unruly battery in the regiment. In spite of a generally shy and modest temperament, Truman captured the respect and admiration of his men and led them successfully through heavy fighting during the Meuse-Argonne campaign." (Excerpts from Biography.com)
On April 12, 1945, the sudden death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt catapulted him into the Oval Office after serving as Vice President for 82 days of Roosevelt's 4th term in office. Starting at the culmination of the Second World War, he served during the Cold War and the start of the Korean Conflict until January 20, 1953.
Mr. Truman was a student of history, a man with an intense desire to preserve the records of civilization. In talking about libraries he said, “The worst thing in the world is when records are destroyed. The destruction of the Alexandrian Library and also the destruction of the great libraries in Rome…Those were terrible things, and one was done by the Moslems and the other by the Christians, but there’s no difference between them when they’re working for propaganda purposes.” He believed “The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.”
“There’s some danger that you may get kicked in the head by a mule and end up believing everything you read in the papers.”— Harry S. Truman
Former President Harry S. Truman was also a voracious reader. “I always had my nose stuck in a book,” he said, “a history book mostly. Of course, the main reason you read a book is to get a better insight into the people you're talking to. There were about three thousand books in the library downtown, and I guess I read them all, including the encyclopedias. I'm embarrassed to say that I remembered what I read, too.”
He also was concerned about the influence of money and donors. “I was always very particular about where my money came from. Very few people are going to give you large sums of money if they don’t expect to get something from it, and you’ve got to keep that in mind.” He was aware of the power and corruption money brings.
“No man can get rich in politics unless he's a crook.”— Harry S. Truman
He was outspoken and downright humorous in his recollections of those with whom he came into contact. In regard to those of his contacts in the political limelight, he was quick to speak his mind. Of Adlai Stevenson he recalls him as, “a man who could never make up his mind whether he had to go to the bathroom or not.”
Speaking of Henry Wallace, an opponent when Truman ran for reelection, Truman said, “What he said he wasn’t going to do was exactly what I knew he was going to do. I don’t know in Henry’s case if you’d say he was a liar as much as that he didn’t know the difference between the truth and a lie.” He says that Wallace accused him of trying to get this country into war with Russia, which he says, “was the opposite of what I was doing.”
He believed that you have to appeal to people’s best instincts rather than their worst which might win you the election, but will do a lot of harm to the country.
Despite his share of “frustration, of failure, of disappointment, of poverty, of mortgage foreclosures, of heartbreak” and bankruptcy in his haberdashery business, he remained cheerfully optimistic and “never wore his heart on his sleeve.”
His early life reflected the challenges of a studious and somewhat frail child, who preferred reading and learning to the outdoor games and activities of his peers.
About heritage, he said, “I wouldn’t think much of a man that tried to deny the people and the town where he grew up. I’ve told you. You must always keep in mind who you are and where you came from. A man who can’t do that at all times is in trouble where I’m concerned. I wouldn’t have anything to do with him.”
The book captures the essence of his personality, philosophy and ethics in his own words. He makes viable recommendations on books that every citizen should read, he speaks on how to regard those seeking office and cautions the same. “You see the thing you have to remember. When you get to be President, there are all those things, the honors, the twenty-one gun salutes, all those things, you have to remember it isn’t for you. It’s for the Presidency and you’ve got to keep yourself separate from that in your mind.”
Mr. Truman’s home-spun and self-enlightened wisdom rings true in today’s world, just as he described the plots and campaigns of the Roman Empire as no different than the modern strategies. Through his forthright appeal to the masses telling the truth about what was going on, he won the bid for reelection, in his own words, “by a statement of fact of what had happened in the past and what would happen in the future if the fella that was running against me was elected.”
Entertaining, funny, witty, and full of important observations about the nature of men and politics, this book is highly recommended for anyone who wants to see for themselves that history repeats itself. Whether it’s dirty campaign tactics or political game playing in Congress, this book is eye-opening in its observations.
Truman's often blunt and plain style of speech is considered by some to be profane or vulgar and varies from the politically correct words spoken today. Conversations with this former President reflect the vernacular of those born in the nineteenth century, raised in the rural South. His rare use of certain words to describe people may offend some readers.
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© 2018 Peg Cole