Review of “Truman” by David McCullough


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Truman” is David McCullough’s 1992 biography of the 33rd president.  It was the first comprehensive biography of Truman and earned the 1993 Pulitzer Prize in the Biography category. McCullough is a highly-acclaimed author and historian who is probably best known for his 2001 biography of John Adams. He is currently working on a book about the early settlers of the Northwest Territory tentatively titled “The Pioneers.”

True to its reputation, this biography is remarkably lively and engaging for a hefty 992-page tome.  McCullough once again demonstrates himself to be an expert storyteller, crafting a fascinating and articulate narrative that generally reads more like fiction than actual history.

A decade in the making, this well-researched biography began to cement Truman’s reputation as something more than a simple man of inferior talent who survived politics only by riding coattails and affiliating himself with powerful political bosses. McCullough works assiduously, but not obtusely, to demonstrate Truman’s optimism, diligence, perseverance and unshakable moral compass…as well as his intrinsic talent for politics.

There are too many praiseworthy moments in this book to mention, but among the best are the discussion of Truman’s military service during WWI, chapters reviewing Truman’s time in the U.S. Senate, description of the covert maneuvering which resulted in Truman’s selection as FDR’s fourth-term VP and the review of Truman’s 1948 Whistle Stop tour. McCullough also adroitly compares and contrasts FDR’s personality with Truman’s (their differences far outweighing their similarities, of course).

Beginning with Truman’s ancestry and moving deliberately (though not speedily) to his death, this is more a “popular” biography than a rigorous academic or analytical examination of his politics and personality. And although McCullough is occasionally critical of Truman’s actions, this is very likely a biography that Truman would have appreciated and enthusiastically endorsed.

Ironically, my least favorite sections of the book were its beginning and its end. While Truman’s humble roots are hardly unimportant to McCullough’s thesis, I found the narrative involving his lineage and early years slow to ramp up. And the eighty or so pages describing his post-presidency seemed relatively uneven and unexciting…but this later period of his life lacks large moments and critical decisions, so it is unsurprising the final chapter suffers by comparison.

Overall, however, David McCullough’s “Truman” proves one of the best presidential biographies of the 164 I’ve read thus far. It is wonderfully animated, thoughtfully revealing, consistently engaging and surprisingly lively. If the hallmark of a great presidential biography is providing a comprehensive (and fascinating) understanding of its subject – and bringing to life the broader history of the era – then David McCullough’s biography of Harry Truman could hardly be more successful.

Overall rating: 4½ stars