I've been watching PBS "American Experience" on U.S. presidents lately - I blame it all on Angela Duckworth, who when she came to SMU to give the Tate lecture last spring, mentioned when asked what she did for fun that she didn't have time to do a lot of things for fun, but a thing she did enjoy was watching Netflix documentaries about success gurus like Anthony Robbins, and since I don't have a Netflix subscription I can't watch any of those docs but I figured it would serve as good inspiration to watch documentaries about people who have changed the world around them. Now I don't only watch documentaries about U.S. presidents - I've also enjoyed movies about photojournalist Dorothea Lange and architect Eero Saarinen, and I have the box set of Ric Burns's New York DVDs waiting for me. But when you need inspiration, the lives of U.S. presidents offer a lot of food for thought.
So I've watched docs about LBJ, Nixon and now Truman. (I also watched the one on FDR a long time ago.) A quick trick I have to evaluate a movie is to look at what happens at the halfway mark. Many filmmakers edit their movie to have a major turning point halfway through, and I assumed that in Truman's case it would be FDR's death and his assent to the presidency. It turns out that Truman's life before the presidency was quite plodding - a father who was a failed farmer, one defining experience as (unexpected) leader of man in the Great War, a marriage at 35 to Bess who was 34 and had first rejected his marriage proposal nine years earlier (by all accounts they were each other's one and only), an assent to the Senate on the coattails of a shady character, a lackluster career in the Senate (Bess hated DC), FDR's indifference at Truman's being named his Vice-President in 1944, and then, FDR's death. This happened long before the end of the first disc in the 2-discs DVD set.
So what do you think the halfway point was?
The atomic bomb, of course. Some of the pictures of Japanese victims are quite chilling. I guess I hadn't thought of it because it is hard to remember Truman as an actor rather than a passive bystander to history. But he also played a key role in the Marshall plan, preferring not to give the plan his name to avoid controversy, and the story of his surprise win in the 1948 Presidential campaign was heartwarming. Sadly, the end of his presidency came to be defined by the Korean War, which drifted into epic catastrophe due to the bad judgment calls of General MacArthur (to understand how bad, you have to read The Coldest Winter by David Halberstam, who writes very convincingly about MacArthur's enormous ego). The Korean War ended under Eisenhower. Truman returned to Independence, Missouri and died in Kansas City, MO twenty years later.
It is hard to view him as a leader, maybe because he was overshadowed by FDR and Eisenhower. Yet he is a remarkable example of a man unprepared for the presidency who rose to the task and strove to make a difference for the people who had elected him, without interest in personal gain, always demonstrating probity and character. If only all unprepared leaders were that way.
For a detailed portrait of Truman, nothing beats Truman by David McCullough.