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Spanning the Century: The Life of W. Averell Harriman, 1891-1986.

In his engrossing biography of W. Averell Harriman, Rudy Abramson presents a sympathetic but balanced account of a man who played a variety of supporting roles in the dramatic national and international events of his lifetime. According to Abramson, Harriman did not always enjoy his supporting roles. Harriman aspired to high office, only to be frustrated, the prize just beyond his grasp. Twice he failed to capture his party's presidential nomination, and he was bypassed for the appointed position he coveted most, secretary of state. Often his frustrations were his own fault. Harriman was a clumsy politician. As a businessman Harriman enjoyed some success, but he never measured up to the stature of his tycoon father, E. H. Harriman. So he turned to other pursuits, first polo, then public service. He excelled in these areas largely because he pushed himself relentlessly. Of all his virtues, physical and emotional stamina stand out as his greatest strengths. He was almost fifty when he accepted his first presidential assignment and later he astounded his youthful colleagues on the New Frontier with his unflagging energy. Whatever the task--New Deal administrator, Lend-Lease expediter, Marshall Planner, cold warrior, or diplomatic rover-- he worked himself and others to the limits of endurance. But his energy proved to be insufficient. On many occasions, Harriman worked hard but not well. His political blunders as governor of New York cost him re-election, and his slavish public defense of President Johnson during the Vietnam War (a conflict he privately detested) looked like duplicity to his colleagues.

All of Harriman's strengths and weaknesses are revealed in Abramson's well-documented book. The author relied heavily on the Harriman papers and numerous interviews, adding credibility to a very lively story. At times, however, Abramson draws conclusions or sees parallels that are either unwarranted, overblown, or irrelevant. On two points he anachronistically jumps thirty years. For example, when he sums up Harrimans work in Iran, he concludes: "Nearly thirty years later the same forces that produced the oil crisis . . . plunged President Jimmy Carter into a crisis that cost him the White House" (484). When he recounts Harriman's veto of a bill requiring secondary students to salute the flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, he notes that "more than thirty years later, the same issue would be used to provoke a national uproar and help elect George Bush president of the United States" (531).

More important, Abramson's speculation in his introduction that "Had [Harriman] been as articulate as he was determined, and had he been blessed with humor to match his energy, he might have been president" is questionable (18). Abramson's subsequent revelations of Harriman's capitulation to bosses in New York and his miscalculations during the presidential primaries of 1952 and 1956 indicate a serious lack of judgment, not just humorlessness and an inability to articulate clearly.

But these occasional lapses in Abramson's analysis should not deter anyone from reading this thoughtful tribute to a public servant worth remembering.

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Author:Jablon, Howard
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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