Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Bestsellers List Revisited -- 1974: Harry S. Truman Resurgent with "Plain Speaking" by Merle Miller

The Committee Room looks back forty years to the spring of 1974 when Plain Speaking: an Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman by Merle Miller topped the New York Times Non-Fiction bestseller list. Miller's book presents Truman as a straight talking, salty-tongued Midwestern sage. This was a fresh take on a former president who up to this time had been generally dismissed by scholars and the public as a hack politician out of his depth as leader of the free world.

The success of Plain Speaking led to a major reevaluation of Truman and his presidency.

Miller's "oral biography," published by the Berkley Publishing Corporation, is based on lengthy taped interviews that Miller conducted with Truman in 1961 and 1962, a dozen years before the book's release. At the time of the interviews, Truman was in his late seventies, living in retirement in his hometown of Independence, Missouri, and mostly ignored by the political establishment. Miller, a jack-of-all-trades Manhattan-based writer whose work included screenplays, television scripts, novels, and journalism, was hired to interview Truman for a proposed series of television programs on the former president and his administration. The proposed series was never made due to a lack of interest from television networks and Miller simply held on to the tapes.

Merle Miller
In Plain Speaking, the elderly Truman, who Miller says sometimes had a few shots of bourbon before an interview, lets loose with often startling opinions. Truman lambastes Dwight Eisenhower, his successor as President, as an arrogant dimwit who was inferior in nearly every way to Generals George Marshall and Omar Bradley. Truman says that Eisenhower, as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, "presided at meetings mostly [and] approved strategy that had been drawn up by other people...he never did originate anything." As for Eisenhower's performance as President, Truman says "Ike didn't know anything, and all the time he was in office he didn't learn anything."  

Truman refers to John F. Kennedy, president at the time of the interviews, as "that boy that's in the White House now" and asserts that Kennedy's father, financier Joseph P. Kennedy, "bought his son the nomination for the Presidency...I don't know how much it cost him; he's a tightfisted old son of a bitch; so he didn't pay anymore than he had to."

Harry S. Truman (center) with Merle Miller
(second from right), 1961 (photo/Truman Library).
Published in January 1974, a little over a year after Truman's death in December 1972, Plain Speaking instantly went to number nine on the New York Times non-fiction list then headed by Alastair Cooke's America, a book version of a popular television documentary series presented by Cooke, a British journalist and original host of television's Masterpiece Theatre. A month later, Plain Speaking captured first place on the New York Times list, having ousted from the top spot How to Be Your Own Best Friend, a now classic self-help book by Mildred Newman and Bernard Berkowitz.

Truman with Eisenhower and General Omar Bradley
at Potsdam Conference 1945 (photo/Truman Library). 
The Watergate scandal that eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon consumed the nation in 1973 and 1974. In his preface to Plain Speaking, Miller clearly aims his book at readers weary of deceit and obfuscation. "It has been good to think about Harry Truman this spring and summer...a time when menacing, shadowy men are everywhere among us...As you will see in reading this book, Harry's words were never fancy, but they were never obscure either. You never had to try to figure out what Harry was up to; he told you what he was up to....he was a man of his word. There was not a duplicitous bone in his body."

Truman's assessment of Richard Nixon as "a shifty-eyed, goddamn liar" seemed prescient to many Watergate-era readers.

The elderly Harry S. Truman with
President Nixon, 1969 (photo/Truman Library). 
Miller explains that most of the interviews with Truman were conducted in the company of two Truman loyalists, David Noyes and William Hillman. "Their mere presence in a room made [Truman] self-conscious, caused him to clean up his language and soften his opinions," Miller writes. Miller also explains that the technical staff sent from New York to Missouri to record the interviews were "all bumbling incompetents" who often had to stop taping in order to readjust recording devices. Miller adds, somewhat mysteriously, that "best of the conversations in this book" were unrecorded comments that occurred "when Mr. Truman and I were alone."

Miller seems to have anticipated that the somewhat murky aspects of his source material plus his background as a fiction writer would raise doubts in regard to the veracity of Plain Speaking. In his preface, Miller gives Truman responsibility for any suspicious content by reminding readers that the book is based on the recollections of an elderly man. Miller writes -- "Now the purists may wonder how accurate Mr.Truman's memory was when we talked, and didn't he touch things up a bit at times to give himself a more heroic stance? The answer to both questions is yes, possibly. Mr. Truman told it the way he remembered it...So, as I think Mr. Truman would have said, the hell with the purists. There are already hundreds of books and there will be hundreds more to clear up those small details that Mr. Truman and his friends may have misremembered."

Miller also quotes Truman's fellow Missourian Mark Twain who wrote of himself in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn "he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth."

The esteemed popular history writer David McCullough quotes from Plain Speaking in his Pulitzer Prize winning Truman (1992). McCullough's biography reinforced the no-nonsense, man of the people image of Truman established by Plain Speaking .

Leading presidential scholar Robert Dallek uses Plain Speaking as source material for his Harry S. Truman, a volume in the prestigious The American Presidents series.

On the other hand, historian Robert Ferrell, who has written several books on Truman and edited for publication The Autobiography of Harry S. Truman (comprised of fragments of autobiographical material Truman left behind) has denounced Plain Speaking as rife with distortions and falsehoods. In an article titled "Plain Faking?," published in American Heritage (May/June 1995), Ferrell writes that Miller inaccurately portrays Truman as "a bull in the American political china shop" and says that the taped interviews (made available to the public in 1993) "do not support the book's text--not by any means." Ferrell notes that while Plain Speaking is "full of hostile Truman commentaries on Eisenhower" the tapes "say almost nothing" about Eisenhower.

Merle Miller speaks to activists, 1971.
(Grey Villet/Getty Images)
Plain Speaking stayed at number one on the New York Times non-fiction bestsellers list until May 1974, when it was overtaken, somewhat ironically, by Times to Remember, a memoir by Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, the mother of "that boy" President John F. Kennedy and the widow of the "tightfisted son of a bitch" Joseph P. Kennedy. Plain Speaking remained in the Times top ten through October 1974

Other top selling non-fiction books of 1974 are Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors, recounting the ordeal of a group of survivors of a 1972 plane crash, by Piers Paul Read; Thomas Jefferson, a highly regarded biography of the American Founding Father emphasizing his personal life, by Fawn Brodie; The Gulag Archipelago, an expose of Soviet forced labor camps by Nobel prize winning author and political dissident by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; Working, interviews with people from different occupations describing what they do on an ordinary work day, by Studs Turkel; and, most notably, All the President's Men, an account of the Watergate scandal by the reporters who broke the story, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward.

On Being Different, re-issue, 2012.
Miller followed up Plain Speaking with "oral" biographies of Lyndon Johnson (Lyndon, 1980) and Dwight Eisenhower (Ike the Soldier, 1987) based on interviews with associates of these former presidents. Offering no direct material from Johnson or Eisenhower themselves, both of whom had passed away, these books didn't pack the punch of Plain Speaking.

Merle Miller died in 1986. Today he is perhaps best remembered not for his bestseller Plain Speaking but for his essay "What It Means to Be a Homosexual," published in the New York Times Magazine (January 1971) and later in book form as On Being Different. 

In the article, a seminal work in the gay rights movement, Miller employs his journalistic skills, literary knowledge, and some Truman-like plain speaking to declare himself homosexual (something he had never done even to many of his friends and co-workers) and to insist that homosexuals do not necessarily lead unhappy and unwholsome lives outside of the mainstream. Miller's article was written in response to a 1970 Harper's article by essayist and short story writer Joseph Epstein which presented homosexuality as a tragic condition, a view that was widely held even among supposedly enlightened sophisticates.

In 2012, On Being Different was reissued by Penguin Classics.

Here's more information --

Edwin McDowell. "Merle Miller is Dead at 67; A Novelist and a Biographer." New York Times. 11 June 1986.

Paul Morton. "The March of Progress is Never Neat: Merle Miller's On Being Different." The Millions, 15 November 2012.

The Committee Room. Time Spent with TCR is Never Wasted.


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