Wild About Harry

updated 09/21/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/21/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

GEORGE BUSH AND BILL CLINTON RARELY SEE EYE-TO-EYE, but on this they agree: They both want to be Harry S Truman. Bush quotes Truman and finds inspiration in the late President's come-from-behind victory over Thomas E. Dewey in 1948. Clinton has David McCullough's acclaimed Truman biography by his bedside, and on Labor Day he stumped in Truman's hometown of Independence, Mo. Everywhere the political rivals sing the praises of Truman's "Give 'em hell" 1948 campaign, harking back to an America where family values meant kids got in free at the drive-in. But does either have the right to be Truman?

Certainly not George Bush, according to Margaret Truman, 68, the President's only child, who wrote a huffy disclaimer for The Washington Post. The mystery writer (Murder on Embassy Row) knows that her father thought "Republican" was a synonym for rapscallion and would have pointed out in the saltiest terms that in 1948, Bush, then 24, voted for Dewey. (Ronald Reagan, a Democrat at the time, campaigned for Truman.) Defending her father against a would-be imitator, the President's daughter resorted to a familiar idiom. "I would say to George Bush," she wrote, "You are no Harry Truman."

At his home on Martha's Vineyard, Mass., David McCullough is amused by the political karaoke contest—and he has the right to a knowing grin. For 10 years, McCullough, 59, immersed himself in research on the 33rd President, practically becoming one with his subject. The result was Truman, the 1,117-page biography that has become a hit—and a future HBO movie. McCullough is convinced that "if Harry Truman were to run for President today, he would sweep the country."

As for the imitators, McCullough acknowledges that Bush's impersonation is "silly on the face of it and he knows it. Truman was the architect of his own campaign.... He didn't lick his finger and put it up in the air to see which way the wind was blowing." Truman does share one trait with a prominent Republican though. "He wasn't a good speller," says McCullough, noting that the talent isn't necessary for success in the Oval Office. "He couldn't even spell the name of the the street he lived on—North Delaware—correctly."

Today's Democrats might also disappoint Truman. Truman, he believes, would have been appalled by Clinton's confessional acceptance speech. "Never would he have gotten up and given a speech to a convention in which he talked about the troubles he'd known in childhood," says the biographer. "Never!" And there was no shilly-shallying over the role of First Lady. Truman was fiercely protective of his intensely private wife, Bess, and always referred to her lovingly as "the Boss."

Truman, however, is a problematic idol. "He was incapable of eloquence." says McCullough. "He didn't have an ability to express what the heart feels. He wasn't a genius. He was a poor judge of people. He made snap judgments, and he often thought he knew more about a subject than he really did."

McCullough, who hosts PBS documentaries and was the narrator of The Civil War, makes no excuses for his subject. "Harry Truman is real," he says. "He never whines and never loses sight of who he is." He is proof that a "seemingly ordinary person can rise to the occasion and achieve the extraordinary." Says McCullough: "People ask, 'Will we ever have another Harry Truman?' I say sure. She might be growing up in the Chicano section of Los Angeles right now."

DAVID ELLIS
SUE AVERY BROWN on Martha's Vineyard

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