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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
The next day, Tuesday, July 11, the President announced formally that he was running for another term. (He would never forget, wrote the young Alien Drury, the look on the faces of Democratic senators when the news reached the Hill. “It was as though the sun had burst from the clouds and glory surrounded the world. Relief, and I mean relief, was written on every face. The meal ticket was still the meal ticket and all was well with the party.”)
That night, following dinner, in the President’s blue oval study on the second floor of the White House, the full anti-Wallace coalition —Flynn, Hannegan, Walker, Alien, Pauley, plus one more exceptionally influential “practical” politician, Mayor Ed Kelly of Chicago—gathered with the President for what they were to regard as the decisive meeting.
Because of the muggy heat, everyone was in shirt sleeves. Drinks were passed, and again the full list of vicepresidential possibilities was taken up one by one. Again Byrnes and Rayburn were rejected. Now, for the first time, Barkley, too, was ruled out, and by Roosevelt, because Barkley was too old. Like Byrnes, Barkley was sixtysix, which made him Roosevelt’s senior by only four years, but the Republicans at their convention in Chicago had just nominated for President Gov. Thomas E. Dewey of New York, who was all of forty-two.
Roosevelt thought a young man was needed on the Democratic ticket, and again, to the surprise of the others, he proposed William O. Douglas, an idea none of them had ever seriously entertained. Douglas, he said, was youthful (he was fifty-three), dynamic, a good liberal, and he had a kind of Boy Scout quality that would appeal to voters. Besides, Roosevelt thought, Douglas played an interesting game of poker.
But the idea fell flat. No one wanted Douglas any more than Wallace.
Again the talk turned to Harry Truman, Roosevelt contributing little to the conversation except to observe that he had set Truman up in his committee (which was not so) and thought he was doing a commendable job. Truman was able and loyal to the administration, Roosevelt agreed, and “wise to the way of politics.” Reportedly the question of Truman’s sometime association with Boss Tom Pendergast’s powerful Kansas City political machine was “thoroughly discussed” and dismissed as irrelevant.
As for which candidate might be best suited and prepared for the burdens and responsibilities of the Presidency, there appears to have been little or no discussion. Apparently only Roosevelt touched on the subject, saying again that, all in all, Jimmy Byrnes was the best-qualified man.
It would also be remembered how tired and listless the President was all through the stifling evening. Frank Walker commented later that he had never known Roosevelt so willing to “let others carry the ball.”
At last, turning to Hannegan, Roosevelt said, “Bob, I think you and everyone else here want Truman.”
Roosevelt had not said yet whether he himself wanted Truman, but at this point Ed Pauley rose and suggested they break up, then hurried everybody out of the room before the President had a chance to say anything more. Downstairs, as they were about to leave, Hannegan decided to go back up and get something in writing. By several accounts he returned with a note that Roosevelt had scrawled on an envelope: “Bob, I think Truman is the right man, FDR.”
At first chance on the morning of Wednesday, July 12, Hannegan went to see Henry Wallace at Wallace’s apartment at the Wardman Park Hotel—a mission made, according to Hannegan ‘s later account, at the request of the President. He told Wallace he would be a detriment to the ticket and must therefore withdraw. Wallace said they might as well understand each other. He was not withdrawing as long as the President preferred him.
On Thursday, the thirteenth, Wallace met for lunch with Roosevelt, who reported on the meeting of the night of the eleventh in some detail, explaining the preference of the professional politicians for Truman as “the only one who had no enemies and might add a little independent strength to the ticket.” Wallace showed him a new Gallup poll reporting 65 percent of Democratic voters in favor of Wallace, while Byrnes had but 3 percent, Truman 2 percent.
It was his intention, Roosevelt said, to send a letter to the chairman of the convention, Sen. Samuel Jackson, saying that if he were a delegate, he would vote for Wallace. Would he offer any alternative name? Wallace asked. No, Roosevelt assured him, he would not. “Well, I am looking ahead with pleasure to the results of next week no matter what the outcome,” Wallace said.
Roosevelt, his head up, beaming, drew Wallace close and with a vigorous handclasp said, “While I cannot put it just that way in public, I hope it will be the same old team.”
In another exchange earlier that same morning, Roosevelt had told Jimmy Byrnes that he was certain Wallace could not win at Chicago but that he would endorse no other candidate. Byrnes pointed out that he had not allowed himself to become seriously interested until Bob Hannegan had told him, in effect, that he was the President’s first choice. “You are the best qualified man in the whole outfit, and you must not get out of the race,” Roosevelt told him. “If you stay in, you are sure to win.”
Meeting with Hannegan and Walker for lunch the next day, Byrnes repeated what Roosevelt had said. Hannegan was incredulous. “I don’t understand it,” he said. Neither did Byrnes, who, determined to settle the matter, returned to his White House office and put through a call to Roosevelt, who by this time was at his home in Hyde Park, New York. Byrnes, who had once been a court stenographer, took down their conversation in shorthand.