Speaking Truth to Power

February 4, 2008

cliftonslide2.jpg Poor Margaret Truman. Poor Paul Hume. Her concert career was pretty much finished off by her father’s intemperate letter to a frank critic, and Paul Hume’s many years of distinction at The Washington Post are often most-remembered for President Truman’s letter.

The letter is better known than the review, of course; reading it, though, it’s still astonishing that such a communication was sent on White House stationery:

Mr. Hume: I’ve just read your lousy review of Margaret’s concert. I’ve come to the conclusion that you are an “eight ulcer man on four ulcer pay.”

It seems to me that you are a frustrated old man who wishes he could have been successful. When you write such poppy-cock as was in the back section of the paper you work for it shows conclusively that you’re off the beam and at least four of your ulcers are at work.

Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you’ll need to a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!

Pegler, a gutter snipe, is a gentleman alongside you. I hope you’ll accept that statement as a worse insult than a reflection on your ancestry.

The review itself inevitably makes for less diverting reading, but the salient points were:

…Miss Truman cannot sing very well…

…There are few moments during her recital when one can relax and feel confident that she will make her goal, which is to end the song…

…She communicates almost nothing of the music she presents… And yet still the public goes and pays the same price it would for the world’s finest singers…

…as long as Miss Truman sings as she has for three years, and does today, we seem to have no recourse unless it is to omit comment on her programs altogether.

For the sociology of music, though, this event marked important principles. While it is clearly indecorous for the President to promise assault upon a citizen, it it refreshing to realize that he meant to do so as a private citizen without any of the abuse of office that can sometimes occur. However much it may have embarrassed the gentlemanly Paul Hume to be associated with such a squalid situation, he can’t really have expected violence against his person.

And Harry Truman’s knowledge of the public was shrewd. He predicted that mail would be eighty percent on his side in the matter. It in fact exceeded that. The spectacle of a powerful man descending from his height in defense of a loved child edified parents everywhere, as he knew it would.

This should be remembered in any attempt to pretend that reviews of performances (or our reactions to them) are, or can be, completely objective.

Every time I see Margaret Truman’s quite lovely portrait on the wall of one of those upper corridors at Carnegie Hall, I think of the fact that she was the great loser in the famous exchange. In the obituaries for the accomplished author and broadcaster Margaret Truman Daniel last week, every one of them put great emphasis on Hume’s documentation of her sorry singing. She had her father to thank for that, but then she never gave any sign that she regretted his excess of protective love.

The fact that a critic could write so honestly, the President-father could react so excessively, and nothing was injured but an already ill-starred career is a great tribute to free societies.

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