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Plain Speaking:
An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman

by Merle Miller

Despite its flaws (or perhaps because of them), this is an illuminating look at Harry S Truman, in his own words. Truman’s earlier memoirs were somewhat restrained, but this book became a #1 bestseller with its no-holds-barred language.

Novelist and screenwriter Merle Miller spent much of 1961-62 taping interviews with Truman and a variety of the former President’s friends, relatives, and political allies. The proposed documentary series never reached TV. Instead, Miller later made his own selective transcriptions for this 1973 book, published a year after Truman’s death and during the Watergate scandal. Based on these pages, Truman was hailed as an admirably guileless, honest, and blunt contrast to the “tricky” Richard Nixon, whom Truman hated. A major reassessment of Truman began, and in time Truman's reputation would rise.

While this book got favorable notice mainly for highlighting Truman’s positive qualities, a darker side also peers through, probably unintentionally. He denounces political opponents with a pathological fervor that makes Nixon’s famed hatreds pale in comparison. While professing love for democracy, he frequently condemns anyone on the opposite side of the political fence as ipso facto a crackpot or a crook. He relishes negative campaigning, at least when he’s doing it. Miller, meanwhile, tiptoes around Truman and does not challenge contradictory, inaccurate, or outrageous comments. Instead, he lends support with over-the-top commentaries of his own. Ironically, several times Truman savages “yes men” and those who employ them. Meanwhile, in a footnote Miller expresses fear that Truman would cease cooperating if questioned too hard.

Miller died in 1986 and independent journalists who later reviewed the original tapes became suspicious that he fabricated sections of this book. It is still worth reading, though with this note of caution.

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