When dealing with the big stuff, Truman treated his diary like a stranger, not to be trusted with intimate details. For example, June 4, 1945: "Joe Davies returned from his visit to the P.M. of G.B. Had him and Adm. Leahy to dinner and we discussed foreign affairs and Churchill in particular." Is that all we are to get? Yep. That's it. And to make the entry even more frustrating, we have already been told on May 10, 1945, in passing, without any supporting details, that "the difficulties with Churchill are very nearly as exasperating as they are with the Russians."

I had hoped that somewhere in these private papers -- some of the former president's diaries, memoranda, letters and appointment sheets -- Truman might tell us at last about his gut reaction to dropping the A-bombs on Japan. Instead, the silence is unnatural. On July 25 he writes that he has ordered the first target to be "a purely military one" -- "not women and children." But there is no diary entry after Hiroshima -- certainly not a "purely military" target -- and on August 10, the day after Nagasaki, the diary contains one paragraph -- squeezed in between a discussion of a bureaucratic squabble and some pork-barrel considerations in Texas -- in which he wonders how much the public should be told of the bomb. That's all. He does not again mention the A-bombing of Japan until a memo (one-sentence) written nearly nine years later.

The image of Truman already cemented in the public's mind -- waspish, earthy, outspoken, sentimental, militantly commonsensical -- is validated by these papers.

Above all, the waspishness. Truman says that he had prayed almost daily since the age of 18 for "the ability to be charitable, patient and forgiving with my fellow man." The prayer didn't work. On June 17, 1945, he complains to his diary, "I don't see why in hell Roosevelt didn't order" Gen. Jonathan Wainwright to flee the Phillipines and order Gen. Douglas MacArthur -- "Mr. Prima Donna, Brass Hat, Five Star MacArthur" -- to stay behind and wind up in a Japanese prison camp. Prima Donnas, with whom he feels his administration is overflowing, are among Truman's favorite hates. But he had plenty of others.

The press in general is made of "lice." He especially loathes "Hearst and Scripps Howard, McCormick and all the rest of the traitorous and sabotage press."

Getting down to personalities: Roosevelt's children "sold him down the river and when they weren't selling him they 'sold' the country." Senator Claude Pepper is "publicity crazy." John Foster Dulles is "a stuffed shirt." Franklin Roosevelt (though he is sometimes referred to as a "great humanitarian") is a "fakir." Secretary of State James Byrnes is likened to Brutus. Defense Secretary Louis Johnson is an "ego maniac." Senator Estes Kefauver ("Cowfever") is a "demogogic dumb bell." "Talk about ethics -- well, he has none." John L. Lewis "is a Hitler at heart, a demagogue in action, and a traitor in fact" who should have been hanged for treason . . . . He is . . . as yellow as a dog pound pup."

And then there was the cabinet Truman inherited from FDR: Secretary of State Edward R. Stettinius "never had an idea new or old"; Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau is a "block head"; Commerce Secretary Henry A. Wallace "wasn't loyal"; Interior Secretary Harold Ickes "would have cut FDR's throat or mine for . . . a headline -- and did." Et cetera.

What are we to make of all this ad hominem bitterness? Laboring under the unspeakable pressures of that wartime and transitional era, it was obviously therapeutic for Truman to use his diary and his unsent letters for blowing off steam, for enjoying fits of pique, for puffing his ego without shame. So we can take some of this as therapy. But on the other hand, if you wade slowly back through that bile, analyzing carefully each of his judgments, you will see that although they were extravagantly one-sided, they were often accurate on that one side.

Some of the Trumanesque outbursts, however, make one wonder about his virtues as an administrator. If, for example, he really felt that James Forrestal "never could make a decision," why did he promote Forrestal from Secretary of the Navy to become the first Secretary of Defense?

The same kind of question is raised by Truman's condemnation of the FBI.

May 12, 1945, memo: "We want no Gestapo or Secret Police. FBI is tending in that direction. They are dabbling in sex life scandals and plain blackmail when they should be catching criminals . . . . This must stop. " (His emphasis.) But it didn't stop, and although there were nearly seven years left of his presidency, he did nothing to reform the FBI. Nor do these private papers offer anywhere an explanation of why he let us down on that score.

Psychologists will lick their chops over some of this stream-of-consciousness writing. The diary entry for Dec. 9, 1950, contains 23 lines. The first 17 are taken up with a description of daughter Margaret's famous recital, Washington Post critic Paul Hume's criticism of it, and Truman's low regard for Hume -- and then suddenly, breathtakingly, swoosh! Truman plunges into a discussion of world affairs and ends with the thought that "it looks like World War III is here." The change is so precipitous that one must pause a moment and sort things out to be sure Hume wasn't to blame for that, too.

No doubt Truman was excited by the power he held -- power, he kept telling himself, that was greater than "Jenghis Khan, Tamerlane, the Mogul Emperors, the great Caliph of Baghdad" etc. -- but he was also obsessed, as we can tell from what he writes in these papers, with the fear that the power might corrupt him. As if to protect himself from that transformation, he ridicules the presidential perks, he likens the presidency to a circus sideshow, he scorns the White House as the "great white jail" and the "great white sepulcher of ambitions and reputations." Indeed, he becomes almost tiresome in the way he keeps complaining, again and again, about being "forced" onto the ticket with FDR in the first stop that led to the top job, and he is tediously repetitious in his insistence that basically he is a humlel man ("I've never cared for social position or rank." "I hope I'm still the country man from Missouri).

And yet these pep talks ot self, this self-flagellation, seem to have worked. If one can accurately judge from these private mutterings, no president of recent decades -- certainly not one of the prima donnas who have served since Truman -- has been so successful at keeping himself and his job in perspective.

Americans tend to forget that when it came to charting postwar national security Truman sounded like a hyper-thyroid Ronald Reagan, and that he was not exactly the greatest advocate of civil rights to sit in the White House (he described a women's rights discussion as "a lot of hooey"). But it is easy to see why we still reserve so much affection for old Harry. He was the kind of president who, with all the responsibilities of World War II coming down on his head, took time out to write Mamma and sister Mary to remind them to keep 35 pounds of air in the tires of the family car.