When Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky has a cold war, he usually just takes an antihistamine and is fine by morning.
"I'm here to make decisions. Whether they prove right or wrong, I'm here to make them."—Harry S Truman
Few people think of Harry Truman as a "great" president. He was the guy that fell through the crack between the glorious years of World War II and the "Happy Days" of the Eisenhower years. He was the guy that lucked out, an obscure politician who ended up in the presidency because the greater man (Franklin Roosevelt) died.
In this sense, Truman was much like Teddy Roosevelt, who also stumbled into the presidency because his opponents tried to marginalize him by giving him the useless office of vice-president, which led straight to the White House on McKinley's assassination. And like TR, Truman was a bookish, frail child with a stubborn streak who became a hero in war (in Truman's case, World War I) and ended up a politician with the help of a political machine that he later turned against. Unlike TR, Truman was never in love with power. He was so shy that he never even had a girlfriend until his mid-20s—and that woman (Bess Wallace) became his strong-willed wife.
Harry Truman was a farmer, failed businessman, high school graduate—the last person you would peg as a successful president in the twentieth century. Maybe he could be your neighbor. But the president? Worse, Truman inherited the most difficult political situation of any president in the century: we were in the endgame of World War II, and the Soviet Union was already lining up for its turn on the global stage. He knew little of the situation. Franklin Roosevelt never much cared for the former Missouri senator and kept him out of the loop during the three months of their time together.
But when Truman ascended to the White House, it took only a short time before he won over Americans with his straightforward, folksy style. They saw him as a regular guy, a tremendous contrast with the patrician FDR. He spoke his mind, which his supporters saw as "giving 'em hell." Much of it was bluff though: while a sharp mind, Truman learned global politics on the fly and made decisions more on instinct where long study was lacking. In spite of being placed in power by a corrupt political machine, he knew enough to fight corruption once he got into office. In spite of a racist upbringing, he knew instinctively that racism was wrong—and he pushed (unsuccessfully and unpopularly) for civil rights legislation. Like Teddy Roosevelt, he took unpopular stands on issues and managed to convince most of his opponents that he was doing the right thing.
The third of David Grubin's 1990s trilogy of presidential biographies (along with FDR and TR: The Story of Teddy Roosevelt), Truman seems different only in the fact that it actually spells out its subject's name rather than using initials. But thematically, it fits right in: an unlikely leader whose stubborn sense of duty made him rise to the occasion during a time of social crisis (namely, war). Grubin (here directing and writing without the help of Geoffrey C. Ward, as on TR) brings in the usual PBS crew, including the always reliable David McCullough and narrator Jason Robards. There are times where the story drags, if only because Truman is less colorful than the other figures in Grubin's trilogy. He is more of a passive character, a man who found himself stuck with critical decisions to make, rather than seeking those responsibilities out. His relationships, particularly with his wife (who disliked his time in the spotlight so much that she refused to live in the White House with him during his presidency), seem strained and distant. Grubin cannot make Truman a more towering figure in the same way that you cannot make lobster thermidor out of a solid cut of sirloin steak. We never see Truman as a great strategist, but as an ordinary guy who basically muddled through on a combination of tenacity and moral conviction. Maybe it is Truman's very mediocrity that makes him an interesting figure, at least from a historical perspective.
Given the lesser reputation of Harry Truman compared to some other twentieth-century presidents, it is surprising at first to note that this documentary actually runs longer than TR, which covers a far longer period of time (and major events like the Spanish American War and Roosevelt's political comeback). But Grubin uses the time to paint a picture of Truman's origins in racist and rural Independence, Missouri, to his experiences in World War I, to his first years in politics working as a flunky to a corrupt political machine. Truman finally came into his own during his tenure in the Senate as a crusading warrior against the very political machine that put him into power. Disc One follows his rise up to the end of World War II, climaxing with Truman's most crucial decision: the use of atomic bombs on civilian targets in Japan. The consequences of that decision—the very character of the Cold War with the Soviet Union—form the central focus of Disc Two. Truman, confronted with an aggressive Stalin, felt obliged to "scare the hell out of the American people" and push back Soviet expansion overseas. This took two forms: positive aid in the form of the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe and thus defuse Communist sentiment; military commitment in the form of the Truman Doctrine to counter the Soviets directly. But for all his overseas success, domestic tensions and fear of Communist infiltration led to questionable actions like loyalty oaths and a general sense of paranoia that left Truman exhausted and frustrated. Indeed, between the Korean War and watching Truman's successor Eisenhower deal with anti-Red witch-hunts, the last hour of this documentary gets a little dark.
As with Grubin's other documentaries, Truman resists overanalyzing its subject, presenting a balanced and reasoned portrait of the man who was living proof that anybody could become president and that even the average man can succeed under pressure. So what ultimately made Harry Truman tick? Perhaps it is much like what he said in a letter to Bess during World War I. How did he stand his ground and heroically see his troops through battle without losing a man? Because, he admitted, he "was too scared to run." If anything, Truman was a man who covered his fear of conflict by standing firm. Make of that what you will.
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