Jeffrey Frank doesn’t attempt to emulate David McCullough’s cradle-to-grave biography, published three decades ago. Frank instead glides over Truman’s pre-presidential years to deliver a well-researched, balanced and pithy account that thoughtfully explores the unlikely triumph of one of the nation’s most consequential presidencies. Frank’s prowess as a storyteller brings to life the major episodes of Truman’s tenure while drawing an intimate portrait of his internal struggles as he clashed with foreign and domestic rivals and led a group of heavyweights that came to establish a winning blueprint for the Cold War.
... a book that, in its timing, acts almost as a blueprint for a liberal president to navigate a challenging world, focused through the prism of a man who was nobody’s real first choice for president and yet forged an envious record ... Frank frames his subject in a different way from David McCullough’s completist, Pulitzer Prize–winning doorstopper. It is a humbler, more focused book, with Truman’s pre-presidential life relegated to an extended prologue. This is a character study of an introverted personality in a profession that rewards loud performance. It is an approach that fits his subject: Frank’s depiction of Truman is of a man perpetually outside his comfort zone, preferring bourbon and branch water in his home of Independence, Missouri, to martinis on the DC cocktail circuit ... Frank spends a large amount of time on Truman’s family life, movingly depicting his marriage to Bess Truman, who loathed Washington and fiercely guarded her privacy ... Frank portrays Truman so well that the book’s ending feels like an anticlimax ... Frank has made a case for a man who, when given the responsibility of the entire country, was able to thread many needles, based on personal confidence, trust in the right people, and healthy relationships with family and friends.
There is much that is persuasive in Mr. Frank’s account, and much that is provocative and debatable. Many of Truman’s flaws are shared, to one degree or another, by all political figures, and Truman’s prejudices were of course very much of his time ... With a new kind of Cold War heating up and the foibles of our chief executives an ever more intense matter of scrutiny and concern, Mr. Frank’s book is timely in ways he couldn’t have imagined when he started it. While some of his opinions and interpretations—particularly about containment and the Korean War—are unlikely to persuade everyone, his revisionist take on Truman is rigorously researched, thought-provoking and, not least, a pleasure to read.
Frank is drawn to the human side of this story: the backroom sniping, the jockeying for position, the personality clashes, and the diplomatic pageantry that produced the postwar world order. Famous statesmen abound, most of them more confident, if not more lovable, than Truman.
A pretty shrewd judge...Frank does not so much puncture the Truman myth as let out just enough air to settle the man back to earth ... Frank...composes charming and often penetrating sketches of the men around Truman ... Biographers have a built-in bias toward giving their subject credit for anything within reach; Frank leans almost in the opposite direction ... Frank has very little to say about the Fair Deal, Truman’s domestic agenda ... Frank’s interests lie elsewhere; and he deserves credit for judiciousness on the tormenting decisions Truman was compelled to make ... Frank gives us this ebullient, often cantankerous man in full.
... a very conventional book about Truman’s presidency. It is not quite the hagiographic work of David McCullough’s Truman but also does not measure up to Alonzo Hamby’s more discerning Man of the People ... When it comes to Truman’s Asia policies, however, there is a huge gap in Frank’s history—American policy toward postwar China is dealt with only tangentially.
... engaging and insightful ... The first detailed account of the Truman presidency in almost 30 years, The Trials of Harry S. Truman is very readable. Anyone who wants to go behind the scenes of those pivotal years will enjoy this book.
It’s hardly a picture of visionary leadership, but Frank is often commendably even-handed in that assessment ... looks with refreshing directness at both Truman’s strengths and weaknesses – readers seeking an even-handed account of the major issues in his administration need look no further than this solid volume. They just need to proceed with caution, as Frank himself admits.
In this illuminating chronicle, Frank shows readers how this remarkable midwestern haberdasher surmounted his handicap, leaving his mark on the nation and the world ... Frank impressively weaves together the narrative of Truman’s maturation as international statesman with the equally engrossing story of his growth as American politician, shedding his own prejudices as he desegregates the military and presses for federal anti-lynching laws. Frank not only illuminates the global and domestic difficulties surrounding Truman, but also probes the complex character of the man himself—a give-’em-hell combativeness, which carried Truman to unexpected triumph over Dewey in 1948, set against a vulnerability evinced in his grief at the passing of his aged mother. A compelling historical inquiry.
Frank crafts an expansive, appreciative review of a consequential, yet once-underestimated president who arguably grew into the job he unexpectedly assumed ... Written in a conversational style, this book sees Frank seasoning his workmanlike narrative with a surfeit of side notes, making the non-specialist reader want to engage in purposeful browsing. Although he uses archival records himself, Frank dutifully cites abundant secondary works. It is helpful that the book references Truman’s statesmen-advisors (as well as his home-state cronies), but somewhat distracting that it also details men’s clothing, physical characteristics, and demeanors ... This biography is an accurate, synthetic account which readers will want to compare with David McCullough’s Truman (1993), which Frank highly praises.
... shrewd ... Frank astutely analyzes the geopolitics Truman confronted while conveying his character in elegant, evocative prose ... The result is a discerning portrait of a president who achieved a lot just by muddling through.
... absorbing ... Frank is also an acclaimed novelist, and his storytelling skills add significantly to this well-documented account. While not quite a revisionist history, the book provides further depth and nuance to the character dynamics of Truman and his administration, including sharp portraits of James F. Byrnes, George C. Marshall, Dean Acheson, and James Vincent Forrestal ... Ultimately, Frank delivers a balanced yet appreciative portrait of a president who, despite his limitations and flaws, proved largely capable of meeting the extraordinary demands of his time ... A well-researched, engagingly human portrait of this complex mid-20th-century political leader.