THE BEST-SELLING status of a new 1,000-page biography of Harry S. Truman is owed in part to the research and story-telling skills of prize-winning author David McCullough. But we suspect the main reason for the book's success lies in the appeal of the subject. Forty years after Truman left office and 20 years after he died, it seems America is still wild about Harry.
Circa Watergate, with the White House knee-deep in sleaze, nostalgia for Truman swept the land. The mood was evidenced and at the same time heightened by Merle Miller's "oral biography" of the president, James Whitmore's one-man Truman show and, curiously enough, a hit song in which the pop group Chicago crooned, "America needs you. . . America loves you, Harry Truman."
Now, thanks to Mr. McCullough, we again reconsider Truman, man and president. For old-timers who might have forgotten and for youngsters who never quite knew, the book paints a vivid and complex portrait that goes much deeper than the folksy, fiery image of general circulation. For example, Truman the man, old "Give 'Em Hell Harry" himself, had a touching sentimentality about his wife and daughter, and was far more erudite, especially about history, than commonly known.
Mr. McCullough also asserts that, as president at the country's peak of power (a period also filled with anxiety over genocidal bombs and the start of the Cold War), Truman guided the nation in a manner befitting a great statesman. His considerable achievements, in the biographer's view, included the Truman Doctrine, the Berlin Airlift, the Marshall Plan, the desegregation of the armed forces, the launching of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the establishment of a civilian-run Atomic Energy Commission.
The president's greatest achievement, however, might have been the way he conducted himself in office -- with a decisiveness and a blunt honesty too rare in politics. That he was able to do so at such a tense and pivotal time in our history makes him even more admirable to people who were already pretty wild about Harry Truman.
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IF George Bush needs evidence that the recession persists, he should travel to Newfound Lake, N.H., -- an hour's drive from his summer home in Kennebunkport.
The owner of a vacation home there said the past two summers have been quiet. "During the '80s there were motorboats zipping by our house at all hours. Since the recession started, we have been able to enjoy some very peaceful evenings," he said, sipping a drink and gazing at the sun setting over the lake. Some neighbors who can illuminate the lake with bright spotlights haven't done so in two years.
The recession, according to this unconventional economic index, will be over when water skiers are zooming around Newfound Lake under bright lights.