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Bess W. Truman by Margaret Truman (Macmillan: $19.95; 414 pp., illustrated)

May 04, 1986|Tim Hays | Hays is at work on a biography of Philip Graham. and

Margaret Truman Daniel can be forgiven a slight partiality toward her subject in this revealing biography: Bess Truman was, after all, her mother and her second-favorite parent, after her father, the President. In "Bess W. Truman," Margaret, a successful author, explains her parents' long partnership. Her work is based almost exclusively on Bess and Harry's voluminous correspondence over a 40-year period, along with her memories of life as First Daughter. This book deals essentially with Harry Truman, pausing to interject Bess' childhood, her relationship with Truman through the years, and Bess' reactions to his decisions during his public career.

Growing up in rural Independence, Mo., in the late 19th Century, young Bess Wallace was part of a clan whose patriarch, Frank Wallace, worked as a civil servant, while he and his wife strove for respect in what was then the "society" portion of Jackson County. Frank Wallace, tormented by financial difficulties brought on by the "tight-budget" policies of the Republican federal Establishment, killed himself with a shotgun in 1904. This act marked Bess for life. While Frank's friends, who resented the Republicans, gave him a terrific funeral, the stigma of suicide in that era would become a major factor in Bess' urging Harry Truman not to accept the vice presidential nomination 40 years later.

It took some time for Bess to find an appropriate husband. Fate had intervened years earlier by making young Harry Truman a classmate in the fourth grade. He returned, at age 22, from the farm, told Bess he'd been in love with her since grade school, and thus began a 10-year courtship. Margaret understands how difficult it was for her mother to manage the romance: Bess had idolized her father, and "when a woman loves someone as intensely as Bess had loved (Frank Wallace), and he turns his back on her and that love in such an absolute, devastating way, inevitably, she questions her very ability to love."

When they were married, following Harry's successful tour of duty in World War I, he was 35, she was 34. They honeymooned in Port Huron, Mich., which thereafter became the code word between the two for "happiness." After two miscarriages, which caused further insecurity in Bess, Margaret was born. Harry then devoted himself--and his attempts to make money--to his cherished wife. Bess encouraged him politically, though the memory of the toll exacted on her father by politics continued to frighten her.

Bess was most comfortable in Independence, where she could take care of her mother. When Harry was elected to the Senate in 1934, it took him four years to persuade her to move to Washington permanently; he wanted her close to him, as he felt uncomfortable living the life of a bachelor in Washington social circles.

Though Harry always referred to Bess as "The Boss," he rarely consulted her about important decisions, such as the bombing of Japan; and he had to coerce her into accepting his decision to become the vice presidential nominee, explaining that the two had "a rendezvous with history." That they did. Harry allowed Bess to feel as though he respected her opinions, and he did--up to a point.

Harry Truman was determined to make Bess proud of him; often, on their anniversaries, he would remind her, self-deprecatingly, that she probably could have done better, but he was determined to make her happy. Truman was--never mind the cliche--a great human being and one of our great Presidents; without Bess to back him up and challenge him, it is unclear whether he would have been as great. This informative volume should be read by any serious student of history or Truman--or of the role of familial in presidential politics.

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