BRIAN LAMB, HOST: David McCullough, in your last chapter called "Citizen Truman," you start out by saying, "For as far back nearly as he could remember, Truman had held to the ideal of the mythical Roman hero, Cincinnatus." What's that all about?
DAVID MCCULLOUGH, AUTHOR, "CITIZEN TRUMAN": Well, Cincinnatus was the mythical hero who left the plow, left the farm to go to the aid of his country in time of war and became a great general and was victorious, and then he renounced all of his power and returned to the farm. That's the theme that this country was founded on. If you go up to the rotunda in the Capitol and you look at the great painting by Trumbull of George Washington turning over his powers as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army to the Congress, the Cincinnatus symbols are all through that painting because the Founding Fathers really believed that this was democracy entailed. Citizenship meant that any citizen could be called upon any time to serve his country or her country in any capacity including the greatest power. And the power belonged to the people; therefore, the power would be returned by those who held it for a time.
Truman liked to say, "I tried never to forget who I was, where I came from and where I would go back to." Now, that is the Cincinnatus theme, obviously, but it also shows that he knew who he was and he was proud of who he was, and the return to Independence after he left the office of the Presidency in 1953 was his way of letting his actions speak louder than his words. But when he got home, he found that living up to the idea wasn't as easy as he expected. While we all remember, I think, with affection the Harry Truman of Independence, Missouri, walking the same streets of the town he'd grown up in and just being citizen Truman, neighbor Truman once again, it wasn't all that easy for him. He missed Washington. He missed the stimulation and the pressure and the excitement of Washington. But in order to understand Truman, you have to understand, it seems to me, life in Jackson County. He lived nearly 70 years of his life in Jackson County, Missouri. He lived to be almost 90 and spent 20 years in Washington as a Senator and Vice President and eventually President.
LAMB: The year that he left Washington to go back to Independence?
McCULLOUGH: 1953, when Eisenhower took the oath of office as the 34th President of the United States. When Eisenhower took the oath and when Truman walked down off the platform, he was right back down on ground level again as citizen Truman. He had no pension. He had no allowance for office space, no franking privileges, no Secret Service guards. His only income was his Army pension, which was, I think, $119 a month. He got on the train and the new President, General Eisenhower, had loaned him the Presidential parlor car, the railroad car that had belonged to Franklin Roosevelt, the famous Magellan, to ride home to Independence. All the way across the country, he was greeted at one town after another by crowds that came down to the station to see him.
But he got restless and he got up and walked around that train. It was just a regular passenger train. The rest of the train was full of regular passengers. He just walked up and down the train saying hello to everybody and returning to what he had been. The last part of his life, in many ways, is as fulfilling and as happy and as interesting a part of his life as all of the rest of it. He's a great story, is Harry Truman. I'm asked sometimes, "Why did you do Truman? What drew you to Truman?" There are many obvious reasons, but one of them, certainly for me as a writer, is that he's just a wonderful story. The story of his retirement years was as appealing for me to write as almost anything in the book.
LAMB: One thousand one hundred and seventeen pages.
McCULLOUGH: Including source notes.
LAMB: Correct. If you stop at source notes?
McCULLOUGH: I think it's 992 pages of text, a mere slim volume. The big problem was to keep it to one volume. I was determined that it would not be a two-volume biography. I wanted it all in one volume, and I wanted it to be a big book. I didn't know it was going to wind up quite as big as it is. But it's a big subject. It's a big life. The span, the arc of his life is a chronicle of American life in those years. He goes from what is essentially a Jeffersonian, Jacksonian agrarian America of farms and small towns, which he experiences directly as a boy growing up in a small town and as a farmer for 11-some years, to a country, a nation that bestrides the world with power based primarily on industrial, technological and scientific accomplishment.
He is a 19th-century man in all manner of speech, habit, thought, taste, everything, formed in that period before the First World War, and yet he has to face the most momentous of all decisions of the 20th century for which, theoretically, he's not prepared. But then we weren't prepared as a country either. To me, he is like Bunyan's pilgrim in “Pilgrim's Progress.” He has these various ordeals and complications and difficulties that he has to overcome or get beyond, each one of which represents something that, to me, symbolizes the history of our country. This is a book about America for me. I wanted it to be as much a book about America as about Harry Truman.
LAMB: There are a lot of things that we can do with this book and we only have a short hour. I'm going to stick with the last chapter and also some of your notes here so that I can help myself by not going all over the place. But in this last chapter, because it's relevant to today, you talk about that Harry Truman and his wife got in their own car after he was President and drove by themselves back to this town in New York. Talk about that.
McCULLOUGH: Well, he had a new Chrysler, and he loved to drive an automobile, which is interesting because it was one of the few recreations he had. He didn't know how to play any sports. He didn't play golf. He didn't play tennis. He didn't know how to dance. So driving an automobile and reading and walking were his primary recreation. He bought a new Chrysler, and, as he said, he wanted to give it a workout. So he and Bess decided that they would drive from Independence back to Washington. Friends tried to persuade them from doing that, but they were determined and they set off in the car. It was an adventure in itself because every town they came to, people, of course, recognized him and there would be a great fuss.
The police would get very concerned that they were in town and worried about their safety and worried if something happened to them that it would be the fault of the local police, so they would literally usher them out of town as rapidly as possible. Mr. Truman liked to drive quite fast, above the speed limit, and Bess, Mrs. Truman, didn't approve of that, so she would have him hold to the speed limit. Well, as a consequence, they were often being passed. When people would pass them by, they'd look in the car and, of course, there was the former President of the United States and his wife driving along the highway. The cars would drop back and pass them again just to see if their eyes were playing tricks on them. Truman turned to her and he said, "There goes our incognito."
Then when they arrived in Washington, many of the press corps who had covered him drove out to Maryland to pick him up. They heard that he was coming and waited for the car, and then they all followed him into town. He loved that. When he stopped at the Mayflower and got out with just his shirtsleeves on, driving the car, the crowd all gathered around, traffic backed up, and it caused quite a commotion. They then drove up to New York to see Margaret, who was then living in New York and went to some shows. They went to see "On the Town," the Leonard Bernstein show, and went to restaurants just like anybody visiting New York. Again causing great commotions. Taxi cabs would pull over to the curb and drivers would jump out and say, "Hi, Harry. You're my man" and all that. Then on the way back on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, a state trooper pulled him over. Apparently he had been cutting people too close when he passed them. He said that the trooper just wanted to say hello to him and shake his hand. That was the last automobile trip they attempted. From then on, they would go by train or by plane, or by boat when they went to Europe.
LAMB: There had been an attempted assassination and a number of Presidents had already been assassinated. Why wouldn't the government at that time have protection for him?
McCULLOUGH: It just wasn't done. Why wouldn't the government have a pension? There were pensions for Army officers and pensions for everybody else, but no pension for a President. In fact, he had very little money. He had to borrow some money, quite secretly, which Dean Acheson cosigned, to pay for the move back home. This is not well-known, and it doesn't mean that he didn't have any money. He did have money, but he needed some cash to cover all the expenses of moving out of the White House. When he got home, in order to provide himself some income, he undertook the writing of his autobiography, his memoirs, which no other President had every done, except for Herbert Hoover. But Hoover's time in office was much briefer than was Truman's, and Truman's Presidency covered far more tumultuous history than Hoover's had, so that to undertake that two-volume memoir was a very major, ambitious task.
And then he built his library. Now, there had been a previous Presidential library, Franklin Roosevelt's library in Hyde Park, but it was established after Roosevelt had died in office. So Truman was the first President to actually officiate over the establishment of his Presidential library, and there again, he was beginning something new. I think one of the things I've tried to imply or to emphasize in the book is that Truman was at heart a very creative public figure. He was a creative President. His was a creative Presidency. He had been a builder all of his life. He'd built roads. He'd built courthouses when he got to Washington. When he became President, he built the famous Truman Balcony on the back of the White House, which caused a great flurry of criticism.
Then, of course, he is the one who entirely rebuilt the White House. The White House we have today is really the house that Harry built, except for the original outer shell, which was maintained. The entire interior is a reconstruction of the original house, and he took part in every detail of that reconstruction. He loved it. He loved building. He loved creating things. Of course, in a larger way, his Presidency is marked by such creative and innovative acts as the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine and NATO and Point IV and so forth. So to again be a builder in this last chapter of his life appealed to him tremendously. Building the library, having his office at the library, welcoming guests there, taking people around the library became his life, except for his travels when he went to Europe.
LAMB: Did you ever meet him?
McCULLOUGH: No, I saw him once when I was just a youngster on my first job in New York. I was very starry-eyed. I had gotten a job on a new magazine called Sports Illustrated. I was coming home from work one night. We lived over in Brooklyn. I came out of the subway stop at the old St. George Hotel, and a big car pulled up. There was a small crowd waiting. I stood with the crowd and the big car pulled up and Governor Harriman stepped out. I'd never seen a governor before, so I was quite excited about that.
Then out stepped former President Truman. I was just astonished. I remember thinking, "My God, he's in color." Because we only had black-and-white television, black-and-white newspapers. I think the fact that he had very high color -- he radiated good health -- made him seem not just vital, but a person. He certainly didn't seem like a little man to me. To me, at that moment, he was 6'8". But I never spoke to him. I never met him. I've often thought, wouldn't it be interesting if you could go back in time and I could be able to reach out and touch him on the shoulder in 1956 that fall night and say, "Mr. President, I'm going to write your biography some day."
LAMB: Knowing what you know about him, what do you think he would think of this?
McCULLOUGH: Well, I'm sure there is some of it he wouldn't like because this is, after all, an honest attempt to see the complete man with his flaws and faults, too. I would hope that in sum, he would think I had understood him better than other people have. I think that he was a much, much more complicated, complex, keenly intelligent and thoughtful, considerate man than the stereotype Harry Truman portrait implies. He isn't James Whitmore playing "Give `Em Hell, Harry." He isn't just a kind of salty down-home Missouri Will Rogers. All of the people that I've interviewed, who knew him and worked with him and were in the White House with him, all say, please understand that this man was much more than met the eye.
LAMB: How many interviews did you do?
McCULLOUGH: About 126, and that ranged across a broad spectrum -- some people who hardly knew him at all but saw him come and go as neighbors or people in Independence, and also some of whom who are so important that I interviewed them many times over during the 10 years that it took me to write the book.
LAMB: Who did you spend the most time with?
McCULLOUGH: I would guess in total, perhaps, either Margaret Truman, his daughter, or George Elsie, who was on the White House staff, and Clark Clifford and some of the Secret Service people, who are invaluable because they were with him all the time, many of whom had never been interviewed before about him.
LAMB: Are Secret Service allowed to talk after the fact?
McCULLOUGH: Apparently so.
LAMB: You found no restrictions? They weren't concerned about that?
McCULLOUGH: No. They were wonderful because they saw him off stage. They saw him under all conditions and often under enormous pressure, tension. You mentioned the attempted assassination. Two of the Secret Service men who are still here in Washington walked me through the whole event from both inside and outside Blair House, where it took place. We spent a better part of one Saturday doing that. I'm sure that's never been done before, so that my account of that is based on material that can only be had by reaching that time through living people.
Their devotion to Harry Truman is a very compelling thing to listen to, and it's true of all the people that worked for him at all levels. I did not find a single person who knew him well, worked with him, who wanted to tell me what his terrible backstage temper was or what an ungrateful or difficult boss he was to work with. The closer people were to him, the more -- it wasn't just that they liked him. They were devoted to him, and, in a way, I kept hoping I would find some people who really didn't like him, who had some skeletons to pull out of the closet, but that never happened.
LAMB: When did you start all this?
McCULLOUGH: Ten years ago, 1982.
LAMB: What was the reason?
McCULLOUGH: I was looking for a subject. I'd started working on a book about Pablo Picasso. I had to go around the barn with Pablo Picasso to wind up with Harry Truman. I quit that book. I stopped after a few months because I found I disliked him so. He was, to me, a repellent human being, and he didn't really have a story of the kind that interested me. He was instantly successful. He never really went very far or had any adventures, so to speak. He was an immensely important painter. He was the Krakatoa of modern art. But I found his treatment of his family, his attitude toward women all -- he wasn't somebody I wanted to spend five years with as a roommate so to speak. My editor at Simon & Schuster suggested that I think about doing Franklin Roosevelt because at that time there was not a good one-volume biography of Franklin Roosevelt. Just on impulse, just in a visceral way, I said, `No. If I were going to do a 20th century President, it wouldn't be Franklin Roosevelt. It would be Harry Truman."
And he said, "Well, why not Harry Truman?" I looked into it, and I found that there was not a good biography of Harry Truman. There isn't a complete life and times. This last chapter that you are talking about, that part of his life has never been written about. It comprises 20 years of his life, a very important part of his life. Beyond that, there was this immense collection of letters and diaries. He poured himself out on paper all of his life. He left a written, personal, very revealing record, unlike that of any President that I know of, and I'm sure we're never going to have another President that leaves anything like that.
We don't write letters much anymore, and we don't keep diaries much anymore. He did both his whole life, long before he ever realized that he was going to be a figure in history. To give you an example, in one month in 1947 when he was President and when his wife Bess was back in Independence looking after her mother, Harry Truman, the President of the United States, wrote to her 37 times. These weren't just simple how are you, the weather is turning cool or whatever. These were real letters.
LAMB: Did you ever find out how he wrote them. Were they longhand?
McCULLOUGH: They're all in longhand. Oh, yes. The actual letters all survived.
LAMB: You've seen them?
McCULLOUGH: Yes. He had wonderful clear, straightforward, strong handwriting -- just like he was. But fortunately, very legible so there's never problem reading his handwriting as there was very seldom ever a problem understanding what he was talking about.
LAMB: In the last chapter you also point out that at some point in his life that he and his wife Bess Truman called their daughter Margaret every night in New York?
McCULLOUGH: Yes. They were very, very close. The same people who were with him as Secret Service agents or as White House domestic staff in the mansion have said that they were by far the closest family that they have ever known in the White House. Though they don't want to be quoted by person, they all say that Truman was their favorite President. He was the first President in their memory ever to walk out to the kitchen to thank the chef or the cook for the dinner that night. They remembered Calvin Coolidge coming out once or twice, but they thought that was perhaps to see if anybody filching food. Truman knew everybody by name on the staff, knew all about their families. This wasn't sort of a politician's device. It's just the way he was. The whole "Give 'em hell, Harry," Harry Truman on the job, at the office, in the White House, with his people at the lowest level or the highest level never gave anyone hell. He never raised his voice. If anything, he's remembered for how considerate he was and for small favors and courtesies he would do.
LAMB: Let me ask you a few things about yourself and we'll get back to President Truman. Where were you born?
McCULLOUGH: I was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvannia, in 1933. I'm the third of four sons. My family lived in Pittsburgh for many, many generations. I grew up in a very happy household. My own children have told me, "You have no chance of ever being a serious writer, Pop, because you had too happy a childhood."
LAMB: What did your parents do?
McCULLOUGH: My father had an electrical supply business, McCullough Electric Company, which is still in business. One of my brothers now runs it. I went to Yale University, and when I got out of Yale, I was determined to go down to New York and get a job either on a magazine or a newspaper.
LAMB: How did you get into Yale?
McCULLOUGH: Well, I guess I just did well enough on the college board exams and I had pretty good grades in high school and my two older brothers had gone there. That seemed to help in those days.
LAMB: What did you study?
McCULLOUGH: I was an English major and a minor in fine arts. I was torn about whether I wanted to be a writer or a painter. I never imagined that I would wind up writing history and biography. I feel in my work that I'm working in a school, following in a tradition or a school, of other writers who have not been trained academically as historians, but who are writers who work in the past the way a foreign correspondent might work in another country -- people like Barbara Tuchman, Bruce Catton, Paul Horgan, Wallace Stegner, Robert Caro, lots of them. I suppose we're lapsed journalists.
LAMB: You came to New York for what reason after school?
McCULLOUGH: To find a job. I pounded the streets. I tried to get a job on the New York Herald Tribune and Collier's magazine and Time-Life. I was hired at Time-Life to be a trainee at Sports Illustrated.
LAMB: How long did you stay there?
McCULLOUGH: I stayed at Time-Life for almost five and a half years, and then when John Kennedy was elected, I came down to Washington to be part of the New Frontier, a very lowly member. I worked at the U.S. Information Agency when Ed Murrow was running it, which was very exciting and wonderful. But after the President was killed and after Murrow was ill and leaving his post, I went back to New York to work as an editor and writer at American Heritage magazine, American Heritage Publishing Company. My major effort there was the picture history of World War II, which is still in print, lo these many years. At that point, I started writing my first book at night and on weekends, which was the “Johnstown Flood,” published in 1968.
LAMB: How many other books?
McCULLOUGH: This is my sixth book,
LAMB: During this 10-year period from 1982 to 1992, did you write any other books or was this full-time?
McCULLOUGH: I published a collection, an anthology of essays which came out last year called Brave Companions, but no, no other books. But I did a good deal in television. I've been the host of the "Smithsonian World" series on public television and lately, the last five years, for the "American Experience" series. I've narrated a number of other documentaries, like the LBJ program and "The Civil War."
LAMB: You can hear that voice over 11 episodes of "The Civil War." Did you get much reaction from people around the country on that?
McCULLOUGH: Yes, I do often. If I'm at an airline ticket counter or I order something in a restaurant, somebody's head will snap around and say, "The Civil War." That was a big undertaking. It's almost wall-to-wall narration, so I felt like I'd been in the game all 60 minutes, but was never seen. It was a privilege to be part of that series. It's a wonderful project, and Ken Burns is a major figure in broadcasting today. He defied all the experts. The conventional wisdom about television was that nobody was interested in serious programming, documentary programming, and certainly nobody would watch anything that went on for that many hours.
LAMB: How much time did you devote to that?
McCULLOUGH: Well, I was involved with it from the beginning, and as I recall, it took about four and a half years. I think it actually wound up taking a little longer than it took to fight the war.
LAMB: In the notes in the back, the acknowledgements, you talk a lot about your family. Rather than me read it, how many kids and how many of them were involved in this thing?
McCULLOUGH: Well, we have five children, and they all helped in one way or another, some extensively. One son drove me all through France to follow the whole war, Harry Truman's part in World War I. That same young fellow took the photograph on the back of the book. That's Bill McCullough. And Jeffrey McCullough, who is another son, helped with research on Capitol Hill at the Library of Congress. Others helped with either research or sustaining their father through difficult times. The book is dedicated to our youngest daughter, Dorrie McCullough, who did very valuable work helping with the research on the restoration of the White House, but more than that, who was with us, my wife and me, all the time through those 10 years.
We moved to Washington to do the Smithsonian series when I was 50 years old, which is exactly the time that Truman came to Washington as a senator. We came with one daughter, who was a teenager, just as Margaret was then. We lived in a very small apartment and were making all the adjustments one does living in Washington, so I felt a certain empathy when writing about Truman in his senatorial years from first-hand experience. I think it was very valuable for me in writing the book to have been here. The paleontologists in order to better understand the fossil record, study the living form. Well, in studying the historical record about the Senate and the White House and the whole way that the bureaucracy works and the press works, everything about Washington, it helped to study the living form as well as the historical record.
LAMB: You say that with Senate Historian Dick Baker, you ran one night right after Roosevelt ...?
McCULLOUGH: Yes, one of the most dramatic moments in the whole story is when Truman, the evening of Roosevelt's death, is summoned from the White House by the press secretary, Steve Early, when Truman was having a drink with Sam Rayburn in what was euphemistically known as the "Board of Education." It was Rayburn's hideaway beneath the House side where they would meet for a drink after work every day. And Truman on getting the message from Early that he was to come at once to the White House, left Rayburn's office and ran back to his own office, his Vice President's office, on the Senate side.
I wanted to make that run. For one thing, I wanted to do it in order to find out what time he must have been at various places. I knew how fast he walked, so I could tell how long it took him to walk over, and I timed the walk from the Vice President's office over to Rayburn's hideaway. But you can't just start running through the Capitol, so I called Dick Baker and I asked him if he could arrange for me to make the run at the same time. He said, "Oh, I know why you want to do that. Yes, I'll arrange it but only under the condition that I can run with you." So with two Capitol police as our escorts, we made the run. We were coming along through the hall, and you run through those stone halls of the Capitol with four men with street shoes on, it's a thunderous sound.
We came up to a point where the Capitol police have kind of a rest area and an office. They heard this noise, and four or five of them came out into the hall to see what was going on and they looked up the hall. Of course, what they saw was one Capitol policeman running straight for them, seemingly being chased by two guys in civilian suits with another Capitol policeman chasing from behind. The Capitol police, as we could see, looked very apprehensive as we came charging toward them. As we got up to them, the Capitol officer who was out in front said to them, "Don't ask. I never could possibly explain to you what we're doing. Don't ask." Anyway, we did make the run.
It was a long run. It was very worthwhile. It's an interesting point because Truman said later that he did not think. It didn't occur to him that the President was dead. He thought the President had come back from Warm Springs secretly and wanted to confer with him about something. But if he didn't think that the President was dead, why was he running? And if he did know the President was dead, what did he think he was running toward and what was he running away from? If it were a movie or a film, you could almost see a freeze frame on that moment where he's running down the hall. Of course, by then he's President of the United States, and he's running alone. He has no Capitol guards or Dick Baker running with him. He's running alone.
He had to have known if he wasn't even admitting it to himself. He had to have known subconsciously. It must have been a dreadful time for him. Then he arrives at the White House. He goes up to family quarters, and he steps off the elevator. Mrs. Roosevelt comes forward and puts her hand on his arm and says to him very softly, "Harry, the President is dead." I feel that that's a very revealing moment about Harry Truman when you think of how he might have responded. At first he couldn't say anything. But when he was able to speak, he said to her, "Is there anything I can do for you?" And then, of course, she says to him, "No, Harry. Is there anything we can do for you? You're the one in trouble now."
He is a character on an odyssey who was in trouble of one kind or another much of his life -- thrust in the jobs that he doesn't seem up to, but then he has to rise up to the occasion, whether it's to run the family farm when his father dies or whether it's to be an officer of an artillery battery in World War I or whether it's to be a senator emerging from the shadow, the stigma of his Pendergast organization background. He always has to get out of the hole, so to speak. But this is the biggest hole he's ever in when he's suddenly President because Franklin Roosevelt had told him nothing. Most people know that he had been told nothing by the President about the atomic bomb, but that was only part of it. He as told nothing about anything by Roosevelt, which was not only, in my view, irresponsible on Roosevelt's part, but unkind. So when Mrs. Roosevelt says, "You're the one that is in trouble now," she knew what she was talking about.
LAMB: You write a lot about the selection process for the vice President for the 1944 elections, and you also mention a number of times how the people around President Roosevelt knew he was a very sick man.
McCULLOUGH: And it was commonly known at the convention. So when they all convened in Chicago in 1944, I think it's one of the most dramatic stories in American political history. They know that their nominee for the Presidency, Franklin Roosevelt, who's running for his forth term, isn't going to survive. He isn't going to last very long. He's a dying man. This is kept secret. It's a cover-up, as we would say, but for a very good reason. We were at war, and it was absolutely essential that neither our allies nor, to say the least, the enemy get the idea that this most powerful of all nations, powerful among the allied nations, is being led by a dying man. But they know, therefore, that the Vice Presidency is worth everything. They're nominating two Presidents. The irony of the story is that the man they nominate in the end, Truman, doesn't want to be nominated, whereas the other two, Henry Wallace and Jimmy Burns, are exceedingly ambitious and want it very much.
LAMB: Who was the Vice President?
McCULLOUGH: Henry Wallace was the Vice President, and Roosevelt was playing a very tricky, manipulative game because he told both Wallace and Burns. "You're my man," in effect. "You go to Chicago and you'll get the nomination. You're the man I want." But it was the political bosses who wanted Truman. One of the misconceptions about Truman is that he was an accidental President. He wasn't accidental at all because the political bosses, the big powers of the Democratic Party, didn't want Wallace because they felt he was too left-wing and too eccentric, and they didn't want Jimmy Burns, who had been a famous senator from South Carolina as well as a Supreme Court judge and one of Roosevelt's most important assistants at the White House. They didn't want him because he was too conservative and an avowed segregationist. They wanted Truman.
Roosevelt finally, under tremendous pressure from them, agreed, okay, it'll be Truman. At one point he says, "I hardly know Truman." So Truman is very much the creation of the smoke-filled room, of the old boss system. One can't help to but feel, therefore, that the smoke-filled room wasn't an entirely bad way to go about the business of picking Presidents and Vice Presidents and that the bosses knew what they were doing because we were extremely fortunate as a nation that Harry Truman was there to replace Franklin Roosevelt in 1945. Because even though he had not been told much and even though on paper by a conventional sum‚ his background would seem to be inadequate for the Presidency, he had in many ways been superbly prepared for the Presidency because of his life experience. He had been through what so much of the country had been through. He knew from first-hand personal experience so much of what American life was about then.
LAMB: In your last chapter you talk a lot about him surviving that period financially and that the memoirs were worth about $600,000 to him in advance.
McCULLOUGH: Yes, but by the time he paid all of his taxes and the rest, he wound up with not very much. What finally saved him financially -- and, again, it's one of these great circles of the story -- is the old family farm out at Grandview, which was sold to make way for a shopping center, a suburban sprawl. It turned out to be very valuable. Well, he'd been raised on the old Jeffersonian idea that the land was what mattered and in the long run it was the value of land that would see you through the hardest of times. The family had hung on to that farm through terrible times, through all kinds of Depression and drought and all the rest because they felt this was what had real value. In the final analysis, it wasn't his political career, it wasn't his fame, it wasn't his memoirs or all of the other things that one would assume would give him security, but that land.
LAMB: When I think about his years and I think about your 10 years in getting this together, I want to ask you the same question. How did you survive financially during this period?
McCULLOUGH: Well, I do a lot of lecturing, and my publisher gave me an advance, which, as you know, is the way it works, and television.
LAMB: What will make this book a success?
McCULLOUGH: I don't know how to answer that. As far as I'm concerned, what makes it a success is that it reaches readers. It's already a best seller. It became rapidly a best seller within a matter of weeks. For a 922-page serious biography to go right to the top of the best seller list in the summertime -- I won't say it's unprecedented, but it's certainly rare. I think that, in part, that is because Truman still has a very high standing, great appeal among all of us. But I think, too, that in this political year he represents something that the country, more than in other years perhaps, wants to reach out for -- an authenticity, a clarity, a lack of artifice in his personal and his Presidential manner. Truman stood for something. He always stood for something. You might not have agreed with his position, but you knew where he stood.
LAMB: Was he loyal to his wife?
McCULLOUGH: He certainly was, absolutely.
LAMB: No funny stuff?
McCULLOUGH: Never, never, never. In fact, there is a scene in Potsdam where he gets into his car to drive back to his quarters and an Army officer puts his head in the window of the car late at night and tells him, "Mr. President, I can arrange anything you'd like while you're here, anything in the way of wine and women." And Truman is absolutely livid.
LAMB: Can I read it? I happened to have underlined it when I read it. I wanted to ask you about that. "Listen, son, I married my sweetheart," Truman said. "She doesn't run around on me and I don't run around on her and I want that understood. Don't ever mention that kind of stuff to me again." "By the time we were home," Boring remembered -- that was the Secret Service man -- "he got out of the car and never even said good-bye to that guy." Now, what in the world would an officer ever be doing saying this to a President?
McCULLOUGH: Who knows? Almost unimaginable. He was offering to be a procurer for him.
LAMB: Did you find this out strictly from that Secret Service man?
LAMB: That's never been published before?
McCULLOUGH: No. Many of the Secret Service people that I interviewed have never been interviewed before. I spent one long night with Jim Reilly, who was the head of the Secret Service to Thailand. At the end of the evening, I thanked him for giving me three or four hours of his time. He hadn't just been with Truman; he'd been with Roosevelt, he'd been with Churchill, Stalin, and I said, "Thank you. And I want to particularly thank you when I think of how often you must have been asked these questions." He said, "Mr. McCullough, I've never been asked these questions."
Truman's affection, his devotion to Bess, is a very major part of his life. It's a very touching aspect of the story, and it's entirely true. The reason we have all these letters is because he was so devoted to her. His courtship of her is just one of the great stories that I know of, of sort of pre-World War I middle America -- this young fellow out on the farm who's in love with the daughter of a prominent, by the terms of Independence, well-to-do family. It's an uphill struggle. The family does not want her to marry him. It's his first campaign, and he pursues her. He doesn't let defeat discourage him. He's cheerful. He's devoted. He's loyal to her. He seems always to want to please her in the letters. He seems to be asking her always, "How am I measuring up?"
LAMB: He shared, I noticed throughout your book, a lot of insider information when he was in Potsdam and places like that.
McCULLOUGH: Oh, yes, with his mother and his sister. Imagine, the President of the United States sitting down every night writing, "Dear Mama and Mary Jane," from Potsdam, where he's meeting with Churchill and Stalin for the first time. He's never been on the world stage before, let alone on the world stage with such figures as Churchill and Stalin. He had no small experience with stage fright. But he acquitted himself very well at Potsdam. Several of the people who were with him thought he did better overall than Roosevelt would have done.
LAMB: You write, page 949 -- by the way what's this thing cost, 30 bucks?
LAMB: Except at discount stores where you can save 10 bucks.
McCULLOUGH: In the wintertime you can put it in your trunk and weight down the back of your car on an icy day.
LAMB: Do you have any projections at all as to how many of these are going to sell?
McCULLOUGH: Well, no, but it's ...
LAMB: How many copies are out there now?
McCULLOUGH: Over 200,000.
LAMB: Is it a Book of the Month Club selection?
McCULLOUGH: Oh, yes, it's a Book of the Month Club selection. It's the number one best seller, as we talk at least, in Washington, number three on the New York Times list. It's just unheard of that this would happen to a book of this kind. This is the season of light beach reading, supposedly. But I really feel that the book is designed, was written specifically as a return to an America that was ours not so long ago. Not out of nostalgia, but because this was real and this is who we are, and we must be reminded of who we are. We must be reminded of the tough times we've been through. That wonderful line of Churchill's: "We didn't come this far because we're made of sugar candy." When you see what he as an individual and what we as a country have accomplished, what we've built what we've stood for, and I think that if he reminds us of anything, it's the strength and the vitality and the common sense of the democratic process, lower case "d."
LAMB: When you travel around and you appear on the talk shows, call-in shows and all that, what are the things that people ask you the most about this book?
McCULLOUGH: At the moment, it's about Ross Perot. And the question is often, "Doesn't Ross Perot remind you of Harry Truman?" What interests me about that question is the underlying wish that I will say yes. They want me to say, "Yes, Ross Perot is another Harry Truman," because I feel that we miss, we are hungry for the kind of authenticity that Truman represented. We've had it with what Truman would have called the hooey of politics -- the creation of candidates and personality persona by ghost writers, spin doctors, Madison Avenue experts and so forth.
When Truman went out in '48, which in many ways is the ultimate expression of what he represents, and campaigned across the country in the so-called "whistle stop campaign," stopping the train at all the little towns along the way for 22,000 miles, brutal -- physically a shattering experience for lots of people who were on the train with him who are still alive and remember it vividly -- he spoke to the people directly. He spoke spontaneously. He spoke complete sentences, and I think his Latin teachers would have been very proud of him.
You read those speeches today and you think, wouldn't it be wonderful, wouldn't it be reassuring if someone were as direct with us as that man was every day, five, six, 15 times a day at these little stops? Talking about problems, talking about solutions, talking about where he stood, and never whining, never blaming other people, never blaming his star so to speak, and dogged, dogged determination and the conviction that he was going to win, which was shared by nobody. None of the experts, none of the pollsters, none of the professional politicians thought he had a chance.
LAMB: In the last chapter, I was starting to ask about page 949. I'm going to jump to another thing because we're running out of time. You write a lot about near the end of his life, trying to reconcile with General Eisenhower. There's one incident where you say they spent an hour together in a room near the end. What was that about? Do you remember?
McCULLOUGH: Yes, both General Eisenhower and former President Truman came to Washington for John Kennedy's funeral. They spent an hour together at Blair House, and they made up. They reconciled their differences.
LAMB: Was that meeting that actually went on between the two of them ever written anywhere?
McCULLOUGH: It's not known exactly what was said. But it's been written about before, but not the way it is here. I think that it's important to understand that Truman made up with everybody that he'd ever had a fight with. He was a very forgiving person. His temper was hot, but it blew over fairly fast with a few exceptions. He only person he never had a reconciliation with was General MacArthur. But even there, he did send MacArthur birthday greetings on occasion, but they went unanswered. But he made up with President Nixon. He made up with Paul Hume, the music critic for Washington Post who hadn't liked Margaret Truman's singing.
LAMB: Is he still alive by the way?
McCULLOUGH: Paul Hume. Yes.
LAMB: Did you talk to him?
McCULLOUGH: No, because, I gather he's writing a book about all that experience himself, so he was not willing to talk.
LAMB: One other instance that was interesting was when President Truman was riding in the car with General Eisenhower and -- I don't know if you can remember who was there -- blurted out to General Eisenhower and he was President at the time, "You can be President. I'd support you as President."
McCULLOUGH: Oh, yes. He tried twice to get Eisenhower to run for the Presidency as a Democrat.
LAMB: To take his job?
McCULLOUGH: Yes. According to one account, he even offered to run in 1948 as the Vice Presidential candidate if Eisenhower would agree to run as President. Imagine that! So when they had their break-up, it was very painful to Truman because he had so admired Eisenhower. The break-up came because Eisenhower refused to repudiate Sen. Joe McCarthy when McCarthy attacked General Marshall and called him a traitor. Truman thought the world of Marshall. Truman thought that Marshall was the greatest man of the 20th century. Truman knew, as everyone knew, that Marshall was the one who had made Eisenhower, who had elevated him to the position that he held in World War II. And for Eisenhower to sit on the same platform with McCarthy and not include a paragraph that was in the prepared speech, which repudiated McCarthy's charges, was to Truman a moment of rank betrayal. He really almost never got over it, but eventually did.
LAMB: Books. All through your book, you write many times about Harry Truman being surrounded by books.
McCULLOUGH: He was a reader. He was a lifelong reader. I asked Margaret one day, "What would be your father's idea of heaven?" She said, "Oh, that's easy. It would be a good comfortable arm chair and a good reading lamp and a stack of new history and biography that he wanted to read." He once said that all readers can't be leaders, but all leaders must be readers, and particularly history and biography. His sense of history is one of the crucial aspects of him as a President because what it meant was that he knew that what mattered in the long run was the judgment of history, the judgment of the country in the long run, so that he could ride out the sinking polls or the calls for his impeachment, say, when he fired General MacArthur. He could ride that out with amazing equilibrium, I think, because he knew that what mattered was the judgment in the long run, and he knew that in the long run, he would be judged to have done the right thing, to have upheld civilian control of the military.
LAMB: Books and walking and then something that didn't track, but he liked a couple of jolts of bourbon in the morning?
McCULLOUGH: Yes, if there was one startling discovery I made, it was that he had a pop in the morning.
LAMB: How early?
McCULLOUGH: Well, apparently, quite early, and apparently it was his way of getting the engine going. He would go for his walk, which was a good vigorous two-mile fast walk or more than two miles, come back and do some sitting-up exercises and have a rub-down, and then have a drink. When I was first told this by the assistant head usher, J.B. West, I thought, well, no, that couldn't be. But it was confirmed by two or three other accounts as well.
LAMB: What was he like in death?
McCULLOUGH: He was very stubborn, holding on long after he should have died in the hospital. I think he was sustained by what was then considered to be miraculous modern medicine longer than he should have been.
LAMB: What did he die of?
McCULLOUGH: He was a model patient. He never complained. Well, it was a complete breakdown of the whole system -- the heart, the lungs, the intestines, everything.
LAMB: How long did his wife Bess live after he died?
McCULLOUGH: She lived almost 10 more years.
LAMB: He died in what year?
McCULLOUGH: In 1972, just after Christmas.
LAMB: Did you have a chance to talk to her at all?
McCULLOUGH: No. She was unable to see people.
LAMB: Do you have another book in mind?
McCULLOUGH: Well, I have several, but I haven't made a decision yet on what will be next.
LAMB: Is there a movie or a series on television on your book?
McCULLOUGH: Yes, there will be. At the moment, there are two different television networks interested in the book. It will be a dramatization of the book on television.
LAMB: After all you saw of Harry Truman and learned about him, if he were here today, would you vote for him?
McCULLOUGH: Absolutely. And I would not only vote for him, I'd go out and work hard to see that he was elected. He wasn't perfect. He did make mistakes. His loyalty program was a serious mistake, and he made other mistakes. But he reminds us of what a man in that job can be and what he can do. It wasn't just that he made decisions. He accomplished things. He created legislation, ideas, constructive policy again and again and again. If it hadn't been for the Korean War, which is really what caused his downfall in popularity, his standing with the country would have not suffered as it did.
LAMB: We end looking at this cover. Who did it?
McCULLOUGH: Wendell Miner, who is, I think, an immensely gifted man who has done the jackets for all of my books but one. I think it's an important portrait because it suggests the road that Truman travels from the farm to the White House, which, of course, represents the road that the country has traveled from an agrarian nation to a world power.
LAMB: David McCullough, author of “Truman,” thank you very much for your time.
McCULLOUGH: Thank you
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1992. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.