How often do the “normal” people and moments in life capture national fascination? After all, the public and the media like to focus on stories that deviate from the norm, that are bigger than everyday life, and that take the audience away from their typical lives. However, a person or event occasionally becomes extraordinary by being quite ordinary and yet surprising the world in some unusual way. Harry S. Truman was one of these people.
In the biography The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That Changed the World, A. J. Baime provides insight into Truman’s life, career, and the national and international impact of his time in office after FDR dies. This story is fascinating as it shows how a Missourian with little money and almost no public presence rises to the highest seat of power in the United States. What makes Truman’s career even more remarkable is that he was extremely ordinary. Baime writes about Truman and his future wife Bess, “Bess Wallace was everything Harry was not. She was fashionable, athletic, and popular. Harry, in his own words, “‘was never popular. The popular boys were the ones who were good at games and had big, tight fists. I was never like that. Without my glasses, I was blind as a bat, and to tell the truth, I was kind of a sissy. If there was danger of getting into a fight, I always ran’” (44). Humorously, Baime explains that even though “Harry sat next to Bess Wallace in church school…[i]t took him five years to get up the courage to say hello” (44). These descriptions sound more like a depiction of Charlie Brown, not future president material.
Despite his ordinariness though, Truman wins against all odds time and time again, and his honesty and hard work appear to have been key to his success. Also important to Truman’s character is his continuous dedication to his family. He always makes time to look after and stay in touch with his mother, sister, daughter, and wife. When his family is most concerned about the huge responsibility that has been thrust on him, Truman is worried about how being president will affect the privacy and lives of his family.
In contrast to his unimpressive personality and ordinary origins, Truman’s life is anything but ordinary, and The Accidental President is a fascinating biography. Baime packs the book with interesting details and narrates events in a story-like manner that makes the biography very readable. Thanks to Baime’s skillful juggling of places, people, and events, the different scenes of the story tie together smoothly and help the reader grasp what is happening simultaneously around the world.
While the title The Accidental President appropriately captures how unusual Truman’s career turned out to be, I think perhaps a more fitting title would be The Providential President. As much as people may criticize or disagree with Truman’s policies and decisions, he turned out to be the right man for his hour. Truman faced difficult decisions and stressful scenarios with courage, honesty, and dedication, and I think succeeding generations should take care before passing judgment on Harry S. Truman. After all, he had to make some of the hardest choices and deal with some of the greatest challenges any American president has ever confronted, and he did so without the clear support of the American people that an elected president would have had and without the history-making charisma that most world leaders have possessed. President Harry S. Truman proved a common man could become the leader of a world power and accomplish the extraordinary.
Baime, Albert J. The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That Changed the World. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, NY: 2017.