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“I Hardly Know Truman”
Thus did Franklin Roosevelt characterize the man who was to be his running mate in 1944 and—as everyone at the astonishing Democratic Convention knew—almost certainly the next President of the United States. Here is FDR at his most devious, Harry Truman at the pivot of his career, and the old party-boss system at its zenith.
July/August 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 4
And though the idea was talked about with increasing frequency thereafter, Truman, when asked his opinion, always gave the same answer. He wanted to stay in the Senate.
Truman: “The Vice President simply presides over the Senate and sits around hoping for a funeral.”
Moreover, Franklin Roosevelt had shown no sign of dissatisfaction with the Vice President or any inclination to abandon him. And even if Roosevelt was to change his mind, there were a number of others who were better known and more experienced and who would leap at the opportunity—Jimmy Byrnes, for instance. A small, tidy, vivid man whom Truman greatly admired, Byrnes was a Southerner, a lapsed Catholic, and sixty-six years old, all of which could count against him. But he had done virtually everything there was to do in government, his experience ranging across all three branches, beginning with seven terms in the House before going to the Senate. Named to the Supreme Court in 1941, Byrnes had resigned after only a term to become Roosevelt’s War Mobilization Director. Popularly referred to as “Assistant President,” he was the consummate insider. Roosevelt relied heavily on him and liked him. By contrast with such a man, Truman was small potatoes, as he well knew, and no closer to Roosevelt now than he had ever been.
Still the vice-presidential speculation continued, and with Truman’s name spoken often, for the reason that certain influential figures in the Democratic party had joined in a pact to keep Henry Wallace off the ticket.
They were only a handful, only a half-dozen men or so to begin with, but they were among the most powerful men in the party. They included the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Frank Walker, who had replaced Jim Parley as postmaster general; Ed Pauley, a wealthy California oil man who was treasurer of the National Committee; George E. Allen, a jovial man-about-Washington, a lobbyist, and the secretary of the National Committee; and Robert E. Hannegan, commissioner of internal revenue and not only a great favorite of the President’s but in line to replace Walker as national chairman.
But the key man in the “conspiracy” was Edward Joseph Flynn of the Bronx, New York, who was considered the most powerful political boss in the country and who in looks and manner bore little resemblance to the usual picture of a successful Irish politician. At fifty-two, Flynn was tall and handsome, with thinning gray hair and gray eyes, beautifully dressed, well educated, an ardent gardener, a student of history. Most important, he was a devoted friend of Franklin Roosevelt, and his influence on the President on political matters was second to none. It was Ed Flynn who ran Roosevelt’s successful bid for a third term in 1940, and it was Ed Flynn now, more than any of the others, who saw defeat in November unless something was done about the Vice President. For Henry Wallace was not their idea of a politician.
Henry Wallace was one of the most serious-minded, fascinating figures in national public life, a plant geneticist by profession who had done important work in the development of hybrid corn and whose Pioneer Hi-Bred Corn Company was a multimillion-dollar enterprise. He was an author, lecturer, social thinker, firm advocate for civil rights, and thorough New Dealer with a large, devoted following. With the exception of Franklin Roosevelt, he was the most popular Democrat in the country. But he was also an easy man to make fun of, and to these tough party professionals, Wallace seemed to have his head in the clouds. They had never wanted him for Vice President. He was too liberal, too intellectual, a mystic who spoke Russian and played with a boomerang and reputedly consulted with the spirit of a dead Sioux Indian chief.
None of this would have mattered greatly had the President said Wallace was again his choice. But Roosevelt preferred to let things slide. His mind was on the war. He was also just as happy to keep everyone guessing.
The first meeting with Roosevelt to discuss the “advisability” of ditching Wallace took place at the White House in January 1944, six months in advance of the national convention, and Truman’s name figured prominently in a discussion of alternative choices that included Byrnes; the Senate majority leader, Alben Barkley; Sam Rayburn; Ambassador John G. Winant; Sen. Sherman Minton; and Justice William O. Douglas, who had replaced the late Louis D. Brandeis on the Supreme Court. Roosevelt declined to give a clear sign of what he wanted. As the historian James MacGregor Burns, then a member of the White House staff, later wrote, Roosevelt never pursued a more Byzantine course than in his handling of this question.