Giving 'Em Hell: Fred Grandy captures the complex character of Harry Truman in a one-man play at Encore


Fred Grandy as Harry S. Truman

Fred Grandy served four terms as a Republican congressman from Iowa. Grandy is an actor who quit his role as Gopher Smith on the popular television series Love Boat to enter the partisan and always contentious world of politics (and sometimes governance?).

In these particularly partisan times, Grandy is touring in the one-man play Give ‘Em Hell Harry as that most Democrat of presidents Harry Truman. 

Encore Theater is taking a break from musicals to present this surprisingly relevant look back at Truman’s crucial and politically charged presidency in his own words.

Truman didn’t seek the presidency, it was thrust upon him. He had been plucked from his seat as a senator from Missouri to run with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was seeking his fourth term. 

When Roosevelt died just four months into his new term, Truman took office while the United States was still at war. He had never been taken into Roosevelt’s confidence and he hadn’t been informed that an atomic bomb had been developed, and the decision on whether to use it or not fell on him.

Truman had a reputation as a blunt and honest man. As a senator, he led a committee to investigate waste and corruption in the war effort. He even challenged his president on several issues. But he was dedicated to the New Deal and Roosevelt’s transformative presidency. He was not FDR, but he brought a common sense, down-to-earth approach to an overwhelming position.

Harry Truman never minced words. He was blunt, uncensored, and proudly partisan. But this people’s president was also a good storyteller, slyly humorous, and tried with some success to work with those on the other side of the partisan divide, while also zinging them and their conservative views.

Samuel Gallu’s play uses Truman’s words to weave a portrait of a man steeped in party politics but dedicated to the notion that “The only thing that matters is what’s good for the country.” The play is primarily set in the Oval Office but also moves to the quiet Kansas City suburb of Independence, Missouri, and the battlefields of World War I, where Truman served as a captain. It jumps back and forth in time to show Truman’s special character in crucial moments of his presidency.

Director Hunter Foster, a University of Michigan grad and veteran actor and director, has worked with Grandy to present a good facsimile of Truman and his environment. The Oval Office set is simple but effective, augmented by background slides and telling props. The important equation here is to blend the serious issues raised with a good dose of Truman’s Midwest sense of humor. The key is the transitions from one emotion to another and they are well handled.

Grandy shares Truman’s heartland background. He masters the Missouri accent that was such a contrast to Roosevelt’s mellow upper-class voice that had captivated the country with his fireside chats. Truman spoke with a bark, a howl when taking on an opponent and a slight guffaw when telling a joke. Grandy also stands erect, shoulders back, a posture that Truman used to great effect when he had to remind people that HE was the president. Grandy also handles the difficult job of moving from one topic to another, one mood to another, and making it seamless. He gives just the right fire to Truman’s anger at the greedy rich, the deceivers, and the hypocrites. But he also taps into the rock-solid middle American that Truman remained to the end.

What a time it was. Truman had to steer World War II to a satisfactory conclusion even as we were engaging with our soon-to-be former ally, the Soviet Union. He had to make that big decision on the bomb and steal himself to never second guess that devastating call to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It remains one of the most controversial decisions of all time.

Truman came from a half-Southern, half-Western state with a history of racial tension. Early on he confronted the state’s large Ku Klux Klan and while president made the most significant advances on civil rights since Reconstruction.

His biggest threat wasn’t his 1948 Republican opponent Thomas Dewey but Gen. Douglas MacArthur. As Truman says he never disputed MacArthur’s abilities as a military leader, but he couldn’t have a rogue general ignoring his civilian commander in chief. They clashed over MacArthur’s plans to invade China during the Korean War, which led to MacArthur’s dismissal by Gen. George Marshall at Truman’s order.

Truman had a humble private life. He had a wife who wanted no part of Washington, a mother-in-law who ruled the roost and owned the family home, and a daughter who wanted a career as a singer. When a Washington Post critic wrote a particularly nasty review of Margret Truman’s singing, her loving father sent off an angry letter vowing to break the critic's nose and more if he ever met him. 

Truman was a partisan. He believes deeply in the New Deal and worked tirelessly for it. He came from the rough and tumble of political boss Tom Pendergast’s Kansas City but refused to play that game while maintaining his friendship with Pendergast. Truman was complicated and never the simple rube that Republicans pretended him to be.

In these especially, dangerously partisan times, it’s good to see a former Republican congressman taking on the role of Truman with all the respect and dignity that it requires. Truman would often rail against the opposition but find ways to work with them for the good of the country. 

It’s a story worth telling and worth hearing.

Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.

"Give ‘Em Hell Harry" will be presented through Dec. 12 at the Maas Theatre, the new Encore Theatre performance space, 7714 Ann Arbor St., Dexter. For tickets, visit theencoretheatre,org or call 734-268-6200.