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.
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).
|Truman with Eisenhower and General Omar Bradley |
at Potsdam Conference 1945 (photo/Truman Library).
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 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."
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)
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.|
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.