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Plain Speaking: an Oral Biography of Harry S Truman

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The Washington columnist Mary McGrory once wrote, " Since Harry Truman left town almost nobody has spoken his mind. Mr. Truman took the tradition of plain speaking back to Missouri with him." Fortunately for history, Merle Miller followed. In the early 1960s, as preparation for a ill-fated series of television series, Miller talked in complete frankness with the former pres The Washington columnist Mary McGrory once wrote, " Since Harry Truman left town almost nobody has spoken his mind. Mr. Truman took the tradition of plain speaking back to Missouri with him." Fortunately for history, Merle Miller followed. In the early 1960s, as preparation for a ill-fated series of television series, Miller talked in complete frankness with the former president for hundreds of hours over several months. He also interviewed many people who had been close to Truman from his childhood in Independence, Missouri through his years in Washington. While the television programs never materialized, the book Miller composed from his unprecedented conversations offers an intimate and riveting portrait of one of America's most remarkable presidents, illuminating Truman's early political career and surprising path to the White House, as well as the critical events and momentous decisions that shaped his years in power. The subject's candid comments on the characters of Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and others add a feisty edge to the reflections and opinions that enliven this rich, revealing book. All in all, this is a rare, human, and often very funny evocation of the life and times of an American president.


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The Washington columnist Mary McGrory once wrote, " Since Harry Truman left town almost nobody has spoken his mind. Mr. Truman took the tradition of plain speaking back to Missouri with him." Fortunately for history, Merle Miller followed. In the early 1960s, as preparation for a ill-fated series of television series, Miller talked in complete frankness with the former pres The Washington columnist Mary McGrory once wrote, " Since Harry Truman left town almost nobody has spoken his mind. Mr. Truman took the tradition of plain speaking back to Missouri with him." Fortunately for history, Merle Miller followed. In the early 1960s, as preparation for a ill-fated series of television series, Miller talked in complete frankness with the former president for hundreds of hours over several months. He also interviewed many people who had been close to Truman from his childhood in Independence, Missouri through his years in Washington. While the television programs never materialized, the book Miller composed from his unprecedented conversations offers an intimate and riveting portrait of one of America's most remarkable presidents, illuminating Truman's early political career and surprising path to the White House, as well as the critical events and momentous decisions that shaped his years in power. The subject's candid comments on the characters of Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and others add a feisty edge to the reflections and opinions that enliven this rich, revealing book. All in all, this is a rare, human, and often very funny evocation of the life and times of an American president.

30 review for Plain Speaking: an Oral Biography of Harry S Truman

  1. 4 out of 5

    Sherry Sharpnack

    This is one of those books I’ve owned for years but hadn’t read yet. I thought I could clear a space in a book shelf for another book. It turns out that it’s going back to its spot on the shelf. I enjoyed it so much, b/c you feel like you are talking to Mr. Truman throughout this book, which is based on a series of filmed interviews for a proposed television series in the early 60’s. The TV series never got aired, although months of filming were done, so Mr. Miller wrote this book based on the in This is one of those books I’ve owned for years but hadn’t read yet. I thought I could clear a space in a book shelf for another book. It turns out that it’s going back to its spot on the shelf. I enjoyed it so much, b/c you feel like you are talking to Mr. Truman throughout this book, which is based on a series of filmed interviews for a proposed television series in the early 60’s. The TV series never got aired, although months of filming were done, so Mr. Miller wrote this book based on the interviews. There are enjoyable discussions of all the highlights of Truman’s presidency, along w/ lots of colorful quotes. The book was published in 1974, at the height of Watergate, and Mr. Miller never misses an opportunity to contrast Mr. Truman w/ Mr. Nixon. I’ve always been a fan of Harry’s, and am intimately familiar w/ the geographic area of the old Truman family farm, as I grew up close to the Truman Sports Complex in Raytown, MO, the KC suburb between Grandview (where the family farm was) and Independence (where Truman spent most of his long life). I remember visiting his library as a child, and seeing the news footage of him on a daily walk, usually on VE Day — his birthday, coincidentally— or Christmas. Many of the folks interviewed for the series had remained Harry’s lifelong friends and all stated that being in Washington as a Senator, Vice President, and President didn’t change him in the least. He refused to lend his name, sit on any boards, or give lectures b/c he felt that would be profiting by his presidency, which would be wrong. As badly as Harry hated Nixon, one can only imagine how he’d feel about Trump.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Nicholas

    This is a fun read because it's like you're sitting next to Truman listening to an interview. You really get a sense for his personality. It's important to note that Miller conducted these interviews near the end of Truman's life--his recollections are not always totally accurate. David McCullough also comments that Truman was a bit more acerbic during the interviews (perhaps based on his age or a desire to make a point forcefully) than his overall history would suggest. But with its flaws, this This is a fun read because it's like you're sitting next to Truman listening to an interview. You really get a sense for his personality. It's important to note that Miller conducted these interviews near the end of Truman's life--his recollections are not always totally accurate. David McCullough also comments that Truman was a bit more acerbic during the interviews (perhaps based on his age or a desire to make a point forcefully) than his overall history would suggest. But with its flaws, this is a great book to introduce Truman to a new reader or gain additional insights into this great man's life.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Brandon O'Neill

    Thanks to my Uncle Steve for dropping this off to me this summer. It was based on an in-depth set of interviews Miller did with Truman for a TV show that never came to be (the networks were not interested - can you imagine that happening now?). It has been said before, and I am thinking rightly after reading this, that Truman was the last regular guy in the presidency. He said he always did what he believed to be right, regardless of the criticism, trusting that the truth will eventually come o Thanks to my Uncle Steve for dropping this off to me this summer. It was based on an in-depth set of interviews Miller did with Truman for a TV show that never came to be (the networks were not interested - can you imagine that happening now?). It has been said before, and I am thinking rightly after reading this, that Truman was the last regular guy in the presidency. He said he always did what he believed to be right, regardless of the criticism, trusting that the truth will eventually come out and people won't be fooled for long. I've been to his presidential library in Independence, and it is really worth a visit.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Jeff

    I loved this book. It was written in the last stage of Truman's life and it is occasionally cited as a primary source in other biographies and histories. Highly recommend.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Jon

    Plain Speaking is an excellent book for anyone interested in Harry S. Truman. The author, Merle Miller not only interviews Truman but many of his contemporaries including a former teacher from Independence, Missouri and past Truman administration officials. The book is at its best when Truman describes how he fired former General Douglas Macarthur and why he was confident that he would beat Thomas Dewey in the 1948 election. One incident shows the peril in underestimating Truman. As President, T Plain Speaking is an excellent book for anyone interested in Harry S. Truman. The author, Merle Miller not only interviews Truman but many of his contemporaries including a former teacher from Independence, Missouri and past Truman administration officials. The book is at its best when Truman describes how he fired former General Douglas Macarthur and why he was confident that he would beat Thomas Dewey in the 1948 election. One incident shows the peril in underestimating Truman. As President, Truman was challenged to respond to an obscure Latin phrase by the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Truman diplomatically informed the Chief Justice that his obscure Latin phrase was incorrect. This book had meaning for me since a lot of my ancestors are from Missouri and reflect the ethics and values in Plain Speaking.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Chris

    Plain Speaking is aptly titled. This is an interview, Q&A, format book. Occasionally, other individuals are heard from, but for the most part it is Truman retelling his own history growing up, working, as a senator and eventually as President of the United States, and briefly the days following. Truman to me seemed like a no-nonsense sort of guy who made decisions well and understood his role well as a leader of the people. Remarks historically of Truman possessing strong crisis leadership seems Plain Speaking is aptly titled. This is an interview, Q&A, format book. Occasionally, other individuals are heard from, but for the most part it is Truman retelling his own history growing up, working, as a senator and eventually as President of the United States, and briefly the days following. Truman to me seemed like a no-nonsense sort of guy who made decisions well and understood his role well as a leader of the people. Remarks historically of Truman possessing strong crisis leadership seems valid. Despite arriving to the Presidency sort of by default, I was impressed with the body of knowledge he had regarding about every preceding President. That said, every president he mentioned, and there were many, he predominantly spoke of their failures (not only Presidents, but also Generals). He clearly took great pride in himself, in how and where he was raised. The history of the United States was very important to him and his opinions on people were strong and yet towards himself, he was modest and often praised others rather than himself for successes. There is a fair amount of discourse on the Korean War and wiretapping that occurred after WWII and rightfully so, yet surprised the steel workers labor dispute was not mentioned at all. He seemed like a man that if you spent time with him, he would want to listen to you more than speak, yet you would be most interested in his assessment for he possessed strong skills in assessing character. I definitely don’t think I’m finished reading about Truman as I would like to better understand why so many think he is one of the greatest presidents, since Truman definitely was not one to call himself great.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Laura

    Very readable series of interviews with Harry Truman while retired to Missouri Fleshed out with text of speeches or other material referred to in the book. Quite a refreshing contrast to politics of today, lemme tell ya. So many other stories and articles pictured Harry as a sort of country bumpkin..... Nothing could be further from the truth!! Harry was extremely well read in history and politics and even poetry. And he often refers to lessons from the history he's read as a basis for a politica Very readable series of interviews with Harry Truman while retired to Missouri Fleshed out with text of speeches or other material referred to in the book. Quite a refreshing contrast to politics of today, lemme tell ya. So many other stories and articles pictured Harry as a sort of country bumpkin..... Nothing could be further from the truth!! Harry was extremely well read in history and politics and even poetry. And he often refers to lessons from the history he's read as a basis for a political decision, or the basis for a characterization of a current-day (well, in the 1950s and 1960s) pol. So he didn't just read something once and forget it; his memory was excellent! Just because someone did not make the 'clever' or politically 'cagey' decisions does not mean he was a rube, folks. We could dearly use about a thousand clones of Mr Truman today and set them loose on a faltering American society.

  8. 4 out of 5

    JCB

    I read this ages ago and thought it a great read. Thumbed through it again recently and was still engaged. I've always thought Truman one of the better presidents, and his Missouri roots were always given some attention as to why Truman was so 'plain speaking', and such a well respected president. It's a shame now that those same Missouri roots have now veered way off from Truman's values, as it becomes more and more 'red' in its horrible politics. Wonder what Harry would have thought about the I read this ages ago and thought it a great read. Thumbed through it again recently and was still engaged. I've always thought Truman one of the better presidents, and his Missouri roots were always given some attention as to why Truman was so 'plain speaking', and such a well respected president. It's a shame now that those same Missouri roots have now veered way off from Truman's values, as it becomes more and more 'red' in its horrible politics. Wonder what Harry would have thought about the current conditions of politics now in his home state, as well as what he thought about the current occupant of the WH. I'm gonna go out on a limb, and say that he would think the same as what he thought about Richard Nixon.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Owen Goldin

    The book allows us sit and share a "libation" with Harry, who tells it as it is. off the cuff. His own narrative of his life is selective -- whose isn't? -- and a more complicated story of his presidency can no doubt be told, but the book remains a refreshing reminder that a decisive, principled. well-read and honest president remains a possibility

  10. 5 out of 5

    Pat

    I loved this book so much. So inspiring and really makes me strive to be a more straightforward person and one who is confident in my own decisions. My dad was always a great admirer of Harry Truman and now I am, too. Wonderful!

  11. 4 out of 5

    Latham

    I did not expect to like a presidential biography this much, but it's engaging, easy to read, and Truman is without hubris...so refreshing in a political figure. Really a great book!

  12. 5 out of 5

    J. Bryce

    Guesstimating when I read this, but it was soon after I saw the stage play, Give Em Hell Harry, so I think around 1980. My first experience with "oral history," and I really enjoyed it.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Lisa

    #46 of 120 books pledged to read during 2018

  14. 5 out of 5

    Tom

    A tonic for our time. They don't make 'em like Harry Truman anymore -- or at least we don't elect 'em. Too bad for us.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Marsha Fort-Herren

    I think I’ve read everything written about this incredible man. This book was a very good biography!

  16. 5 out of 5

    Amy

    Ah, Harry Truman. I admit, when I read the introduction to this book I thought Merle Miller was off his rocker. The intro was filled with accolades and praise. It seemed over the top. However, after reading Plain Speaking I too am a happy drinker of the Truman kool-aid. I ADORE this man! Truman was a well read, no-nonsense, honest man who lived life simply and humbly. He was a man who always said what he meant and meant what he said. He was a man who strived to do what he believed was the right Ah, Harry Truman. I admit, when I read the introduction to this book I thought Merle Miller was off his rocker. The intro was filled with accolades and praise. It seemed over the top. However, after reading Plain Speaking I too am a happy drinker of the Truman kool-aid. I ADORE this man! Truman was a well read, no-nonsense, honest man who lived life simply and humbly. He was a man who always said what he meant and meant what he said. He was a man who strived to do what he believed was the right thing. An example of how to live a life. So, as I say with all the books I really love, everyone should read this. It is a great read. Admittedly I wanted to nudge Miller when he didn't dive further into the death of Truman's father, but Truman had a take over type of personality and simply would not expand his answers to certain questions, I could understand that. I would have loved to see the documentary they were planning to do. It is a shame that Truman had negative thoughts about it even though his feelings were understandable. He didn't consider himself a big deal, only the position that he held. He never wanted to be considered a "high hat" and never wanted to come across as fake or a showman. He had no cause for concern. Truman worked at the White House and then went back home to Independence, Missouri where he quietly lived out the rest of his life. He wouldn't have had it any other way.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Susan O

    I really enjoyed reading this book. The only thing that kept it from being a higher rating is the possibility that Truman's quotes weren't accurate. In a few reviews I read it was stated that the book did not match the tapes that are being kept at the Truman library. I have not verified this myself, so don't know how true it is. That being said it was a delightful read. It seems very true to the picture I had developed in my mind after reading Truman by David McCullough. The book consists of tra I really enjoyed reading this book. The only thing that kept it from being a higher rating is the possibility that Truman's quotes weren't accurate. In a few reviews I read it was stated that the book did not match the tapes that are being kept at the Truman library. I have not verified this myself, so don't know how true it is. That being said it was a delightful read. It seems very true to the picture I had developed in my mind after reading Truman by David McCullough. The book consists of transcripts of taped interviews with Harry Truman made over a period of a couple of years in the 1960s with the intention of creating a series of TV episodes about Truman. The author also interviewed people that knew Truman in his childhood and during his time in the White House. The series did not happen and the interviews were then used to produce this book. Taking in to account the possible inaccuracies of the transcripts and human memory, this is still a worthy read. It helps to complete a picture of a man who's service to his country is more appreciated now than at the time of his service.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Pammy

    The interview work that originally occurred to assist in the production of a television series about President Harry S. Truman. The series concept lost momentum and history nearly lost the amazing stories told by Truman and virtually all those close to him during his entire life. Merle Miller, interviewer extraordinaire, pulled this oral autobiography of Truman as if this written format was the right approach all along. I knew very little about President Truman as I began the book...it was a rec The interview work that originally occurred to assist in the production of a television series about President Harry S. Truman. The series concept lost momentum and history nearly lost the amazing stories told by Truman and virtually all those close to him during his entire life. Merle Miller, interviewer extraordinaire, pulled this oral autobiography of Truman as if this written format was the right approach all along. I knew very little about President Truman as I began the book...it was a recommendation made by a friend. The interviews were done 20 years after Truman left the White House, and his recall and eloquence is spot-on. The part I liked best was the realization that this humble man was brilliantly educated, yet his formal education was only through high school. The interviews show him to be humble, reflective, insightful, candid, cunning, and clever. Good things to discover about a president...any president.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Tom

    Well, Truman certainly had his share of crises . . . succeeding FDR, Korea, Israel, dropping the bomb, firing MacArther etc. But he managed with confidence and actionable decisions which he never questioned. I thought the author Miller was a bit too stuck on himself (Miller) and that turned me off a bit. Two surprises (1) what remains puzzling to me is why Truman hated Ike so much. In the biography of Eisenhower by Ambrose and in Crusade for Europe by Eisenhower, no such animosity was mentioned. Well, Truman certainly had his share of crises . . . succeeding FDR, Korea, Israel, dropping the bomb, firing MacArther etc. But he managed with confidence and actionable decisions which he never questioned. I thought the author Miller was a bit too stuck on himself (Miller) and that turned me off a bit. Two surprises (1) what remains puzzling to me is why Truman hated Ike so much. In the biography of Eisenhower by Ambrose and in Crusade for Europe by Eisenhower, no such animosity was mentioned. Truman denies ever offering support to Ike as a candidate for president while both Ambrose and Ike both report the support in their works, and (2) Truman's destruction of files relating to Marshall, Ike and Kay Summersby. I'll let you read that for yourself.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Marie

    I've never read such an honest, eye-opening, life-changing biography. Merle Miller asks great questions and Truman does not disappoint. I am a teacher and I use some of the personal incidents Truman discusses for teaching aids...like the humanity he showed a sergeant who went out of his head during an attack during WWII and ran off. While Truman was pushed to court marshall the man, he decided to give him a second chance, saying that you have to have faith in people...otherwise you have nothing. I've never read such an honest, eye-opening, life-changing biography. Merle Miller asks great questions and Truman does not disappoint. I am a teacher and I use some of the personal incidents Truman discusses for teaching aids...like the humanity he showed a sergeant who went out of his head during an attack during WWII and ran off. While Truman was pushed to court marshall the man, he decided to give him a second chance, saying that you have to have faith in people...otherwise you have nothing. As it turns out, Truman made the right call: the once dishonoured man did make a good life for himself.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Rory

    Merle Miller's overheated, sometimes egotistical writing dogs what could have been an even more valuable resource for historians and lovers of presidential history. Truman has a lot to say, all of it interesting, but you have to go through Miller to get there, and at times, it's almost not worth the battle. Whereas Harry Truman abhorred "playacting," as he put it, Miller revels in it. Woe is him, who expected to be more famous for his writing. And woe is us for the times we have to "wade through Merle Miller's overheated, sometimes egotistical writing dogs what could have been an even more valuable resource for historians and lovers of presidential history. Truman has a lot to say, all of it interesting, but you have to go through Miller to get there, and at times, it's almost not worth the battle. Whereas Harry Truman abhorred "playacting," as he put it, Miller revels in it. Woe is him, who expected to be more famous for his writing. And woe is us for the times we have to "wade through our share of the snow to get to the cabin," to quote Kevin Spacey in "The Big Kahuna."

  22. 5 out of 5

    Geri Mariano

    Read this in HS thanks to a recommendation by a favorite Social Studies teacher. I had loved President Truman after watching a mini-series on TV -- Backstairs at the White House. I came to respect him even more after reading Merle Miller's wonderful oral biography. The final chapter, Miller's question and Truman's answer have always stayed with me and I have quoted him often. Plain Speaking -- that's what Truman did -- if only our current politicians could follow his example.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Lydia

    Truman always struck me a particularly dull president, even though he was involved in what was one of the most critical decisions the US ever made. I found this book fascinating. It was a glimpse into a complex character, and it made the person, not the holder of public office, forever replace "Truman" in my mind.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Alie

    I enjoyed very much reading this book. I reckon that a leader will be better understand about his/her decision whether he/she knows about history. Additionally, there is two things I should investigate bout relation between president and general also are civilian presidents better than non civilians?...

  25. 4 out of 5

    Jane Bozman

    Plain speaking by Merle Miller is beautifully written. It describes President Truman as a president who wanted to maintain contact with average citizens. He used to drive his Secret SErvice people crazy by insisting on taking a stroll down the sidewalk. He clearly bristled when he was annoyed and let everyone around him know when he was not pleased.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Larry Basgall

    I read this book as a young man. Well worth the red. Harry Truman who many vilify today and yesterday, gives an account of his life and his decisions as a man and as President of the United States. He is full of common sense and has a knack for expressing it for the common ear. This is a "Goodread" for all.

  27. 5 out of 5

    David

    This was the best way to get the real story from Harry Truman. Just put a tape recorder in front of him and let him talk. In his folksy way, Truman told the fascinating stoy of his life and his presidency.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Bryan McCullick

    straight from his mouth, it was fascinating to hear harry truman talk about what he did during his time in the white house. given that he presided over some really important moments in our history, it's all the more amazing. a great read after reading McCullough's Truman

  29. 5 out of 5

    Vivablur

    I like oral biographies and love Harry Truman. I can't get over how many Midwest farmers read and mused on Greek and Roman literature! The 'Give 'Em Hell' reputation of Truman is all here, but he's a much more interesting person than that.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Erin

    One of the best bios on a president that I've read. Takes the actual words from Harry Trumans's mouth and puts them on paper. Facinating accounts of his dealings with Korea, the bomb and his thoughts on Roosevelt and Ike.

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