It's been many years since historians installed Harry S. Truman among the nation's least-likely-to-succeed and most successful Presidents. If he is not elevated to the very-least-likely, most successful of all, it will not be the fault of "Truman," the 4 1/2-hour appreciation that begins Sunday night on PBS.
("The American Experience" will be seen locally on Sunday and Monday at 7 p.m. on KUED-Ch. 7.)Although Truman was a flop by Horatio Alger rags-to-riches standards, his career was authentic upward-and-onward Americana. So little was expected of the man and so much was received.
As pictured in the documentary (the pictures, particularly the early ones of turn-of-the-century Missouri, add to the punch of an inherently punchy tale), he made his way by conscientiousness, determination, a little luck and a lot of pluck.
And once in the White House he showed a toughness and honesty that won a fickle nation's affection even before it won historians' respect.
The story has been told often and well, notably in "Truman," the biography that brought David McCullough, host of "The American Experience," his Pulitzer Prize, and so no revelations can be expected and hagiography must be feared. But McCullough's presence lends authority to David Grubin's documentary, and the narration, delivered by Jason Robards, makes its subject human.
Truman constantly seems to be defying his own low expectations as well as the world's.
So here he is again: the momma's boy who became a World War I hero; the businessman with a record of failure; the late-starting, thoroughly uncharismatic Missouri pol who owed his job to a fabled backroom politicker and crook, Tom Pendergast yet managed to go relatively straight; the dim senator ("Pendergast's bellhop") who astounded everybody with his exposures of corruption in the defense industry during World War II, probably saving the country billions of dollars; the ignored vice president and accidental president ("I'm not big enough for this job") who faced up to a crush of momentous decisions from the instant he took office and then confounded the experts by winning reelection with his "Give `em Hell Harry!" campaign.
The decisions remain stunning, and this treatment emphasizes Truman's amazing confidence and resolve.
He seems to have lost little sleep over dropping atomic bombs on Japan ("I made the only decision I ever knew how to make. I did what I thought was right"); pushing through the Truman Doctrine to fight Communism and the Marshall Plan to reinvigorate Europe; breaking the Soviet blockade of Berlin; entering the war in Korea and then dismissing the imperious Gen. Douglas MacArthur, whom he called "Mr. Prima Donna Brass Hat"; recognizing Israel, and beginning what would prove an epic struggle for civil rights. "Truman" puts the decisions in their best light, although even admirers find nothing good to say about his loyalty program for federal employees, which helped inspire the career of Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy.
Truman's feelings for his wife, Bess, which receive considerable attention here, may leave viewers perplexed. It was a long courtship, and his letters attest to his abiding worship and a sense of unworthiness: "If you turn me down . . . it's no more than I expect." She did turn him down at first, but we hear almost nothing directly from her, certainly no inkling of enthusiasm about becoming Mrs. Harry Truman.
She remains a remote and somewhat grudging figure, attached to a mother with social affectations who apparently saw her son-in-law as a creature from inferior social stock and with puny prospects.
Bess Truman evidently shared her mother's low opinion of politics as a calling and Washington as a place to live, and she spent as little time there as she could, leaving her lonely and loyal mate to console himself at poker with the boys. McCullough probably reflects the reaction of most viewers when he sums up: "It's hard for some people to understand what she was like and why the president was so devoted to her."
The Truman presidency ended on a low note, with the Korean War still taking American lives and his domestic programs going nowhere.
But in the years since, while academics kept reassessing his presidency, the nation's liking for this ordinary man with such extraordinary qualities grew and grew. If "Truman" counts for anything, it will grow a little more over the next few days.