Monday, November 13, 2006


It was a bit of a marathon, but a very rewarding one: I have finally finished David McCullough's excellent biography "Truman".

It's been on my list for a few years now. I never really took notice of Truman until fairly recently; he and Eisenhower sort of ran together in my mind as bland Presidents who served between Roosevelt and Kennedy. My interest began to wax when I moved to Kansas City after graduating from school. KC is close to Independence, Truman's hometown, and while people are certainly not obsessed about him, he does come up in conversation there more frequently than he does in other parts of the country. For a while I'd meant to visit his presidential library in Independence, which I've heard is quite fine, but sadly I did not get around to it before leaving.

Honestly, the single biggest thing which kindled my interest in Truman was when Howard Dean named him as his favorite 20th century President. He quickly rattled through a list of his accomplishments - "He oversaw the rebuilding of Europe, and he integrated the armed forces. He took positions which he knew were unpopular because they were right." As someone who idolizes Dean, I scarf up all information related to him, and decided that if Howard thought Truman was great, he was worth learning more about.

"Truman" is a darn long book, though, so it became one of those things that sits around on my to-read list without getting tapped. I made my first stab during the family reunion, but ended up immersing myself in Charles Williams instead. More recently, after being spanked by Gravity's Rainbow I was determined to prove that I could still read "big books," so I got it again and embarked. This was a few months ago - I have renewed it multiple times and steadily plug away at it. When I started I would read a chapter or two out on the balcony when I got home from work; now it is dark when I get home so I do some reading before going to bed.

McCullough is a great writer... he makes the subject very interesting without making you feel like he's sugarcoating or exaggerating anything. He lets Truman's warts show, which adds to the believability of the book and also to Truman's essential character as "the common American." The book is strongly sourced throughout, and McCullough regularly quotes from diaries, letters, newspapers, memoirs, whatever he can get ahold of. Often times these serve to make a great point or demonstrate what people were thinking; other times I felt like McCullough just felt like he needed to demonstrate the research he'd done.

While the writing is great, it isn't perfect. He does occasionally repeat himself (which is forgivable in a 1000-page book.) Sometimes he tosses out statements without really justifying or explaining them - towards the end of the book he mentions the gradual reconciliation of the estranged Truman and Eisenhower, but he does not actually give any instances of friendship between the two and leaves the reader uncertain of what their relationship was at the end.

In terms of the actual writing, I think I prefer "1776." This is not a fair comparison - 1776 is by definition much tighter, more story-oriented, and packed with action. Given the larger constraints of Truman, though, McCullough acquits himself nicely. He spans nearly ninety years of history, focusing on what merits focus without neglecting the broader picture, and gives an impressive sense of how his actions changed America and the world.

For the rest of this post, I'll be talking about Truman instead of "Truman."

One of the first things that struck me was how lopsided his life was. The last long biography I read was Ron Chernow's phenomenal "Hamilton," and in that book I was struck by how this precocious boy struck out at an early age and accomplished amazing deeds at a young age. Reading "Hamilton" was exhilarating, but also made me feel a little guilty, like I had been caught slacking off. In contrast, Truman's political career didn't start until he was in middle age. The book sort of rushes through his early life, not because McCullough is in a hurry to get to the presidency, but because there just isn't all that much to right about. Other than his service as an artillery captain in World War I (interestingly, Truman's sole military role is the same as Hamilton's, though Hamilton comes across as more confident), his early life was filled with the local concerns of small-town Missouri: courtship, farming, and embarking on several failed businesses. In all that he does early in life Truman comes across as extremely likable and determined, but not all that bright or talented.

Truman had a brief career as a county judge, where he gained distinction by embarking on a successful building program: he got the work done, on time and under budget, and everyone was pleased with the results. From here he was catapulted into the US Senate, with the help of the corrupt Pendergast machine of Kansas City. I find this one of the most intriguing aspects of Truman's life, how a man who would do more than anyone else in rooting out corruption and waste owed his political existence to a big-city machine. A Christian, his personal morality kept him from sliding into the world of graft that lay within his reach; at the same time, being a lifelong committed Democrat, he was loath to attack any of his fellows, even when he saw them acting improperly. I suppose this is the dilemma facing all modern politicians: if you go to Washington and work only with people who have pristine ethics, you won't be able to get things done; at the same time, you need to maintain your own ethics and not compromise on the essentials. What I think is remarkable about Truman is how he didn't engage in the ethical horse-trading that we often see; he would compromise to get his way, but when he was convinced that something was right he would not back down.

Prior to reading the book, the thing that I admired the most about Truman was his work during World War II to expose and eliminate gross fiscal negligence in military spending. What's great is the way he (very rightfully) linked spending with the war and patriotism: he exposed how taxpayers' money was wasted, and more disturbingly, how military contractors were turning out shoddy equipment (from firearms to ships) that risked the lives of serviceman, and how these two trends combined to weaken America's military capability and thus helped the Nazi cause. Honestly, this has particular resonance to me because of my own frustration with the current war. It's getting better now, but in the early stages of the war anyone who questioned Halliburton's obscene overcharging or KBR's inadequate equipment was branded as anti-American and anti-military, when I think it's clear that Truman had it right: it is American to question, it is American to hold suppliers accountable, and the people truly hurting America are those who seek to extort the country, not those who want to stop them.


Anyways. The other thing I liked about Truman was how he didn't seem to really want the presidency - he didn't seek out the vice-presidential slot, and he didn't hope for Roosevelt to die. In this book I got a bit more nuanced picture of what happened. He loved the Senate and never really considered a run for national office, but when others approached him with the possibility he didn't flee from it. His hesitation was more specific: he only wanted to the job if Roosevelt wanted to give it to him. Possibly the most bizarre part of the book is the description of the the search for a running mate in 1944. FDR, who was such a masterful politician and so involved in everything, acted very strangely during this process, privately assuring multiple people that they were his preferred choice, seemingly agreeing with everyone in private but unwilling to make any public stand. I'm really curious why this was; McCullough doesn't speculate, but personally I have to wonder if maybe just a tiny little bit of dementia was started at the end of Roosevelt's life, or if he was unwilling to think too deeply about it because the decision was by definition linked to his own mortality. In any event, Truman was persuaded to run for the secondary slot, and after a lot of maneuvering (and very little help from FDR) he was on the ticket.

Truman was shut out of FDR's cabinet, and when Roosevelt died and Truman took over, he was thrust into one of the most critical periods of history. I feel like just not messing anything up would have been an impressive accomplishment; instead, Truman hit it out of the park with a series of controversial decisions that, in hindsight, were absolutely correct: strong support for the United Nations, massive spending for the rebuilding of Western Europe, standing up to the Soviets in the Berlin siege without triggering a third World War. Not to be too melodramatic or anything, but I feel like one of Truman's biggest legacies is the fact that we're all alive fifty years later. The doctrine he pursued, of firmly opposing the USSR while resisting all temptations of direct military confrontation, saved the world from Red domination and nuclear annihilation.

So what's there to dislike about Truman? Some of his personal attributes were either improper or colorful, depending on your perspective: he occasionally cussed, he enjoyed a drink of bourbon with breakfast, and he associated with some unsavory characters. All of these were things his opponents could point to as deficiencies in character, while to his supporters they demonstrated his ordinary character and connection with mainstream America. On a policy front, I think he was really solid on the whole, but he did fall short in a few areas: he instituted the first "loyalty oath" against communism, seized control of the steel industry, and permitted the Republicans to seize Congress in 1946. (His see-sawing popularity was amazing, matching or exceeding that which GWB has encountered in his presidency, with amazing highs at the end of WWII and the 1948 elections, and stunning lows in 1946 and during the Korean war.)

Another interesting issue was his oversight of the military. The US rapidly demobilized after WWII, and Truman did little to stop it. He had three good reasons for doing so: first, the move was wildly popular; second, he wanted to bring the budget back under control; and third, he and others felt that the US monopoly on nuclear weapons made conventional militaries obsolete. These were all fine motives, but when the Korean conflict began the military was not in a good position to meet it, and it's possible that the USSR may have been emboldened by the seeming weakness of the US. As an avowed pacifist I can't fault his mothballing of the army, but at the same time I can't help but wonder how history might have been different if he had maintained higher troop levels after the way. It might have been worse, I'm just curious.

The Korean war dominates the end of the book, and I found myself curiously affected by the sweep of the book. I have a hard time describing any war as just - some are worse than others, but there's always innocent death and they have a habit of spiraling out of control. Still, if one were to compare Korea to, say, Vietnam, it looks quite good in comparison. Again, part of this is just me being swept up in the book - after spending hundreds of pages getting inside the heads of these men, coming to understand their world and their goals, it's natural to identify with them. From their perspective, they were not only demonstrating a willingness to stand up to Communism, but also were defending against a fierce and unprovoked attack by a ruthless enemy that was causing massive civilian casualties. I can't say that I condone Truman's decision to go to war, any more than I can say I condone his decision to drop the atomic bomb, but it's a defensible decision. And having made it, I do admire the way he stuck by his decision to keep it a limited war, denying MacArthur's request to drop nuclear bombs on Manchuria even when MacArthur was far more popular than the president.

Throughout the book, but especially once he's in the presidency, two qualities of Truman really stick out for me: his vitality and his candor. This man whose career started so late in life seems to have kept the stamina of a younger man, and I was regularly impressed with descriptions of his physical activity. He lived to be 88 years old, and remained energetic until near the very end. As for his candor, Truman was truly plain-spoken, friendly, unpretentious and humble. His mouth got him into trouble plenty of times, but he always cheerfully apologized when he was in the wrong, and to me that's a great mark of character... not weaseling out of bad situations you've put yourself into, but instead facing them head-on.

I seem to be averaging about one biography every three years, and I think that's a pretty good pace for me. I'm pleasantly surprised by how real life can be as strange and exciting as the world of a novel, and it's great to have a ready store of anecdotes in case I ever get invited to a cocktail party. More seriously, it's good to be reminded that the world we live in was created by real people, and that the actions they take are extremely important. This is especially true for those of us fortunate enough to live in a democracy. It is my belief that we as a society are collectively responsible for the actions of our leaders. Every person who voted for Truman bears some responsibility for the freedom of Europe and the civil society of America; they also bear some responsibility for the nuclear age and the hundreds of thousands dead in Korea. The choices our leaders make today are every bit as momentous, and if we make poor decisions in the voting booth (or neglect our obligation to vote), our own legacy and our conscience will feel the consequences.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Never Winter in California

It's raining! We had a little drizzle of almost-rain a month or so ago, but yesterday and today are the first "real" rains of the year. I really don't mind. Sure, I miss being able to ride to work, but it is very liberating to know that I have a reasonable expectation that I will have days of sunshine and warmth in the months ahead. I'm not like Persephone descending into the underworld.

Colder weather and shorter days means that it's that special time of year, when video game companies release their best titles to grab a slice of the lucrative holiday season. Fortunately, they've gotten a little smarter about spreading around release dates more - someone eventually figured out that you're in better shape if you're the only gorilla in May than if you're competing against dozens of must-have titles in December - but it's still an embarrassment of riches. Case in point: this week saw the release of both Final Fantasy XII AND Neverwinter Nights 2. Two sequels to greatly loved RPG franchises arriving on almost the same day... craziness!

Not only that, but I'm amused to see Neverwinter and Elder Scrolls once again dropping major new games in the same year. I remember when Neverwinter Nights came out in 2002, and everyone thought it was going to win all the Game of the Year awards, but Morrowind ended up wowing everyone and walking away with a good chunk of them.

This week I overhead co-workers talking about going to Fry's to pick up NWN2, which got me all nostalgic and thinking about how excited I was when the original came out. In case you haven't noticed yet, I don't exactly have great breadth in my video game interests, but I am fanatically devoted to a few top-notch franchises. In the case of Neverwinter, I'd eagerly been awaiting it for well over a year, for a couple of reasons. First of all, it had been announced that it would ship simultaneously on Windows, Linux and Mac, and I was in a phase in my life where I felt a moral obligation to spend money to support Linux gaming. More than that, though, it had been six years since I had left Minnesota, and in that time I hadn't played any pen-and-paper roleplaying games. I really missed the humor and camaraderie and creativity of sitting down with some good friends and adventuring for a few hours. Even more than the game itself, Bioware was hyping the dungeonmaster tools it would ship with, and I dreamed of being able to campaign once again. As I've previously noted, I'm not a big fan of MMORPGs, but roleplaying with friends seems like just about the most fun I could have.

While I didn't feel betrayed by NWN, I was disappointed on multiple fronts. First of all, the promised Linux support got pushed further back and back; the client wasn't released until 2003. Furthermore, the dungeonmaster and mod creation tools were underwhelming. The game has spawned a robust creator community, but the reality of the toolset did not match the lofty expectations Bioware created. I was dreaming of a system where the game would handle all the tedious aspects of being a DM while leaving you all the open-ended gameplay; in reality, you had to choose between a practically non-existent DM and one who needed to exert superhuman efforts.

I was still glad to have the client, and I do enjoy RPGs. The first chapter was only OK, but I'd been told that the game got better later on. The final straw was when I upgraded the game and found that all the quests were broken... I would gather the item or something that an NPC needed, and they would act like we were meeting for the first time. In a rage, I uninstalled the game, and other than a brief multiplayer game with David hadn't touched it since.

Hearing talk of NWN2 made me think that I should try it again. After some effort I reinstalled the game, upgraded to the very latest version, and reloaded one of those old old games. I played for an hour or so, only to find that the quest was STILL broken. I guess I wasn't that surprised - future patches probably fix bugs in the game itself and don't correct savegames that have gotten into bad states - but it was still a deflating experience. I need to decide whether to keep going or not. The good things I've heard about the game and the expansions tempt me to keep at it, but memories of the incredible amount of time it takes to beat an RPG cause me to hesitate. (This problem is exacerbated by my preferred play style - I'm a rogue, and sneak everywhere, lure enemies away one by one to finish them off, and exhaust my conversation options with every NPC.)

What's kind of funny is that I now have a much greater love for Bioware than I did in my original play of the game. I didn't start playing the Baldur's Gate games until later, particularly the phenomenal Baldur's Gate 2. In some ways, returning to Neverwinter Nights makes me disappointed for what they left behind. Sure, the graphics are far better, and I think I prefer the third edition rules, but I really miss the great party system of the Baldur's Gates games. Particularly in the sequel, I was just as interested with the relationships NPCs had with one another, their own progress and evolution, as I was with the main plot of the game. Planescape: Torment was just as strong in this regard, with incredibly fascinating and rich characters that you came to know and care for intimately. And in NWN? You get exactly one henchman who you can hire to follow you around. That's it. Do you want a sorcerer and a thief? Too bad, you just get one companion. Granted, the individual henchmen have interesting stories, but they lack a lot of the complexity that came from having a large party.

At some point I need to decide whether I want to get NWN2 or not. I keep flip-flopping on this. My first thought was, "Oooh! Bioware RPG is good!" Then I realized that Bioware didn't actually make it, just some company called Obsidian. Then I realized that Obsidian was made up of ex-Black Isle folks, the guys who actually made Baldur's Gate. Then I realized that I would need to worry about system requirements again. Then I realized that NWN2 gives you an expanded party to play with. And then... well, I sort of started wondering whether I'd be better off beating the first game before playing the second - you can't import your character, I'm just wondering if I'd be missing on some of the plot and story. That just circles back around to the problem of time - I'm not sure if I have time to play the game I already own, so why drop $50 on a new game I won't have time for?

I ended up deciding to defer the decision to my next upgrade. My current thinking is that in the first half of 2007, after Spore comes out, I will upgrade my computer and get Spore, Oblivion, and maybe NWN2. On the bright side, by then the worst bugs should be squashed and the mod community will have had a crack at the game.

PS: Anyone who has a blog on Blogger, it's worth switching to Beta just for the vastly improved spellchecker.