For all their faith in progress, even Americans find themselves tempted by the illusion that their ancestors were giants. Never is this notion more in favor than during an election year, when yesterday's politicians metamorphose under the spell of nostalgia and simple ignorance into heroic avatars of Truth, Justice, and the American Way. Certainly no President in living memory has benefited from this process of retroactive enshrinement more than Harry S. Truman. If recent history is any indication, we will soon have no fewer than three presidential nominees claiming the posthumous endorsement of the man opponents once derided as ''Tom Pendergast's bellhop'' a reference to the corrupt Kansas City boss who sponsored Truman's early career. Quite forgotten in the jostling for position will be the day 40 years ago when Truman, having fired the wildly popular Gen. Douglas MacArthur as the Korean War ground to a bloody stalemate, saw his approval ratings sink to 23 percent.
It is therefore appropriate that Truman, historian David McCullough's immensely detailed, immensely readable biography, should appear just in time to rescue the real Harry S. Truman earthy, blunt, combative, a lifelong foe of Wall Street and what he called the ''high-hat, big-money boys,'' a brilliant campaign strategist and an infighter of sledgehammer effectiveness from the plaster saint his would-be inheritors are bound to make of him.
No brief review can begin to do justice either to Truman or to the monumentally persuasive job McCullough has done re-creating his life and times. Chosen by the dying Franklin Roosevelt to balance the ticket in 1944, Truman was derided in TIME as ''the mousy little man from Missouri'' and widely considered unfit to lead even by many Democrats. When FDR died three months into his second term, even Truman went pale. ''Jesus Christ and General Jackson,'' he was heard to mutter as he put down the telephone. Nobody had bothered to put the vice president in the picture on the Manhattan Project. Within months Truman had to decide: invade Japan by land and sea or drop the atomic bomb? ''If ever a man had been caught in a whirlwind not of his own making,'' McCullough says, ''it was he.'' Having made a decision, however, Truman rarely looked back. When A-bomb creator Robert Oppenheimer came to him guilt-stricken over the carnage, the President privately wrote him off as a self-pitying crybaby.
Immeasurably aided by Truman's vividly written diaries and letters to his beloved wife, Bess, McCullough brings the man and his times to life with painstaking clarity. The chapter detailing Truman's remarkable 1948 reelection campaign against Tom Dewey makes exciting reading even today. ''Truman Should Quit,'' the then-liberal New Republic headlined. In a Newsweek poll, political reporters voted 50 to zip that he was dead meat. Vegas wise guys were giving 30 to 1. ''You don't get any double talk from me,'' he'd tell voters. ''I'm either for something or against it. You know what I stand for.'' Love him or hate him, that they did.
In philosophical moments, Truman liked to identify himself with the Roman general Cincinnatus, the hero called reluctantly from his plowing to save the Republic, and only too anxious to return. To use one of his own favorite words, the comparison was sheer hooey. Harry S. Truman was a politician's politician. And most readers of McCullough's brilliantly told saga would vote for him in a minute today. A