1. Archive

Author says they're no Harry Truman

Ten years ago, David McCullough began working on a book about a president who left office nearly 40 years ago and died 20 years later.

Timing can be everything.

McCullough's comprehensive account of the life and times of Harry S. Truman hit the bookstores in time to become part of the 1992 presidential race.

Truman has not only been near or at the top of the bestseller list for four months, it's been on the night tables of President Bush and Bill Clinton, mentioned in their speeches and quoted by journalists tracking the candidates' efforts to cast themselves as a Truman for our time.

"It makes me want to laugh a little bit," McCullough said. The author of five earlier books on history did push to get his book out this election year because "I felt he represented something that people ought to be reminded of.

"I had no idea, though, that both candidates would be referring to the book, or that each would be saying that he is Harry Truman, which is, of course, pretty silly.

"Neither George Bush nor Bill Clinton is Harry Truman, nor is Ross Perot, I should add, because there is nothing like Harry Truman.

"Nor is anyone who pretends to be Harry Truman like him, because the lesson of Harry Truman's whole political life is that he got where he did by being Harry Truman. He hated hypocrisy, and imitation was a form of hypocrisy."

But McCullough is enjoying the response to his book promotions, which include events in Tampa on Saturday night and Miami Beach on Sunday night that benefited Hurricane Andrew victims.

He smiled during an interview last week about the ways Truman has been called into this year's campaign, including Bush's whistle-stop train tour, borrowed from Truman's come-from-behind 1948 campaign in which he battled against Congress, as Bush has tried to do; Clinton going to Truman's hometown in Independence, Mo.; Clinton saying Bush hurts the middle class while Truman helped it; Bush saying Truman fought overseas while Clinton wouldn't; Clinton saying Bush passes the buck, where Truman's desktop sign once proclaimed: "The buck stops here."

"Now if Clinton and Bush want to . . . speak in a direct, straight-from-the-shoulder fashion, if they want to speak the truth and be decisive, if they want to have courage of conviction, that's all wonderful.

"If my book has helped put Truman back into the discourse of contemporary American politics, that makes me very pleased."

McCullough says he doesn't want to make a myth of Truman. "He made mistakes; I'm not setting him up as a saint we should put up on our dashboard. He was very human.

"He appeared to be an ordinary man, but he was the ordinary man who did the extraordinary."