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`TRUMAN' HELPS PUT UNDERDOG PRESIDENT IN PERSPECTIVE.

Byline: Walter Goodman The New York Times

It's been many years since historians installed Harry S. Truman among the nation's least-likely-to-succeed and most successful presidents. If he is not elevated to the very-least-likely, most successful of all, it will not be the fault of ``Truman,'' the 4-1/2-hour appreciation that begins Sunday night on PBS.

Although Truman was a flop by Horatio Alger rags-to-riches standards, his career was authentic upward-and-onward Americana. So little was expected of the man and so much was received. As pictured in the documentary, he made his way by conscientiousness, determination, a little luck and a lot of pluck. And once in the White House, he showed a toughness and honesty that won a fickle nation's affection even before it won historians' respect.

The story has been told often and well, notably in ``Truman,'' the biography that brought David McCullough, host of ``The American Experience,'' his Pulitzer Prize, and so no revelations can be expected and hagiography must be feared. But McCullough's presence lends authority to David Grubin's documentary, and the narration, delivered by Jason Robards, makes its subject human. Truman constantly seems to be defying his own low expectations as well as the world's.

So here he is again: the momma's boy who became a World War I hero; the businessman with a record of failure; the late-starting, thoroughly uncharismatic Missouri pol who owed his job to a fabled backroom politicker and crook, yet managed to go relatively straight; the dim senator who astounded everybody with his exposures of corruption in the defense industry during World War II, probably saving the country billions of dollars; the ignored vice president and accidental president (``I'm not big enough for this job'') who faced up to a crush of momentous decisions from the instant he took office and then confounded the experts by winning re-election with his ``Give 'em Hell, Harry!'' campaign.

The decisions remain stunning, and this treatment emphasizes Truman's amazing confidence and resolve. He seems to have lost little sleep over dropping atomic bombs on Japan (``I made the only decision I ever knew how to make. I did what I thought was right''); pushing through the Truman Doctrine to fight communism and the Marshall Plan to reinvigorate Europe; breaking the Soviet blockade of Berlin; entering the war in Korea and then dismissing the imperious Gen. Douglas MacArthur; recognizing Israel, and beginning what would prove an epic struggle for civil rights. ``Truman'' puts the decisions in their best light, although even admirers find nothing good to say about his loyalty program for federal employees.

The Truman presidency ended on a low note, with the Korean War still taking American lives and his domestic programs going nowhere. But in the years since, while academics kept reassessing his presidency, the nation's liking for this ordinary man with such extraordinary qualities grew and grew. If ``Truman'' counts for anything, it will grow a little more during the next few days.

THE FACTS

The show: ``The American Experience.''

The stars: Hosted by David McCullough. Narrated by Jason Robards.

When: 8 p.m. today and Monday

Channel: KCET (Channel 28).
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 5, 1997
Words:519
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