- Historic Sites
In the classic “oral biography” of Harry Truman, many of the President’s most trenchant words may simply have been invented
May/June 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 3
The story as Harry S. Truman told it was pretty good, even for that eminent storyteller. He was having a taping session with two friends, William Hillman and David Noyes, and his yet very active mind—he was seventy-seven in 1961—went back to 1944, when he was running for the Vice Presidency. In that antediluvian year he remembered being at the Ritz-Carlton in Boston, and “who should be in the suite but old man Kennedy,” Joseph P. Kennedy, father of President John F. Kennedy. Truman was with Bob Hannegan, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and Bob was hitting up old Joe for some money for the campaign in which Roosevelt was running for a fourth term. Joe was not being cooperative. “And he commenced throwing rocks at Roosevelt, saying that he had caused the murder of his own son by bringing on a war.” Joe meant Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., blown up with his bomber on a dangerous mission. “I stood it as long as I could,” said Harry Truman, “and I said, ‘If you say another word about Roosevelt, I’m going to throw you out that window.’”
Then the former President told Hillman and Noyes, “But be very careful about use of that because his son is President of the U.S. and he should be the grand boy.”
It’s a good story and can stand by itself. But a third auditor at the taping, and distinctly a minor figure in the recording of Harry Truman’s thoughts, a writer for a proposed television series that was never aired, Merle Miller, later went off with the tapes and arranged a quite different story. In 1974, after Truman’s death, and with knowledge that it is not possible to libel the dead, Miller published his own version in a best seller entitled Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman . Truman, according to Miller, was in Boston in the Ritz-Carlton, and “who should be in his [Hannegan’s] suite but old man Kennedy, the father of the boy that’s in the White House now? Old man Kennedy started throwing rocks at Roosevelt, saying he’d caused the war and so on. And then he said, ‘Harry, what the hell are you doing campaigning for that crippled son of a bitch that killed my son Joe?’ I’d stood it just as long as I could. . . .”
So it went, in the writing of Plain Speaking . Would-be readers of Truman’s words received Miller’s words.
The result for Miller was sales of half a million copies in hardcover, well over a million in paperback, a book widely regarded as a classic and that is still in print. The result for Truman was that the former President has ever afterward appeared as a bull in the American political china shop. For years thereafter, whenever he was talked about, the American public, and many scholars too, quoted him out of Miller’s book.
Miller made notable additions, beyond simple rewritings. For one thing, he was addicted to profanity. There was a marked insertion of what reviewers described delightedly as Trumanisms but which in truth were Miller’s profanities. That the President could use “cusswords” was beyond question. But Truman in the great bulk of his speaking and writing was not a profane man. A believing Baptist, he never would have taken the Lord’s name in vain. If he used an expletive, it would have to do for a considerable time; he was fully aware of shock effect. The crudeness with which Miller introduced especially one three-letter word should have made the book unbelievable. In this regard one recalls the surprise and dismay with which Truman’s longtime private secretary, Rose A. Conway, once attended a performance of Samuel Gallu’s Give ‘em Hell, Harry . Miss Conway afterward asked the Kansas City television reporter Randall Jessee, himself a close friend of Truman’s, “Did you ever hear the President say such things, Randall? Did he ever talk like that?” Jessee agreed that he did not.
But to continue with Plain Speaking , another evidence of false speaking was the plethora of references to the President’s drinking. The President, Miller wrote, would step out of taping sessions for what the author cutely suggested were “small libations.” Mr. Truman, according to Miller, said his wife did not like this sort of thing, but of course a President is hardly under control of his wife and, Truman related, he continued to take nips. When he and Miller went for lunch to the nearby Howard Johnson’s restaurant, at the bottom of the small hill on which stands the Truman Library (some of the taping sessions were held in the library in Independence, others in New York), “we would always have two or three before setting out, and they were never slight, although they were libational.” But all these references were unlikely, and they should have been warning signs. It was well known that President Truman could nurse a single drink for an entire evening, that all his talk about bourbon and branch water was a part of senatorial, even presidential, bonhomie. Truman was hardly a drinker of any sort. As for the Howard Johnson’s story, it is difficult to take seriously. When the President first went back to Independence after his retirement in 1953 and was driving into Kansas City each day to the Federal Reserve Bank Building, where he had a suite of offices, waiting for the library to be built, he tried once or twice to have lunch in an ordinary restaurant, but matters immediately became impossible as autograph seekers swarmed around him.
Much more serious distortions came from including in the book material that was not on the tapes in any form. The tapes recently became available in the Truman Library, and it is possible to check.