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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
Roosevelt said again he was not favoring anybody: “I told them so.…When we all went over the list I did not say I preferred anybody or that anybody would cost me votes, but they all agreed that Truman would cost fewer votes than anybody and probably Douglas second…”
W allace told Hannegan he was not withdrawing as long as FDR preferred him.
Byrnes pressed him. If Hannegan and his friends were to release any kind of statement saying the President preferred Truman and Douglas, that could make things very difficult for his own cause.
“We have to be damn careful about language,” Roosevelt answered. “They asked if I would object to Truman and Douglas, and I said no. That is different from using the word prefer . That is not expressing a preference, because you know I told you I would have no preference.”
Roosevelt asked Byrnes whether he would try for the nomination. Byrnes said he was considering it, but he needed to know the President’s views. Roosevelt replied, “After all, Jimmy, you are close to me personally and Henry is close to me. I hardly know Truman.”
Byrnes then phoned Harry Truman and asked if he was serious when he told the newspapers he did not want the vice-presidential nomination. Yes, Truman replied, absolutely. He was not a candidate. Byrnes said he had been given the “go sign” from Roosevelt and would like nothing better than to have Truman make the nominating speech for him at Chicago. Truman accepted at once, saying he would be delighted.
Truman had no sooner put down the phone than it rang a second time. Alben Barkley now wanted him to make his nominating speech at Chicago. He was sorry, Truman replied, but he had just said yes to Jimmy Byrnes.
The turmoil at the Chicago convention was entirely over the Vice Presidency and at no time did the outcome appear inevitable. Ambitions were too large, the opportunities for deceit and maneuver and the play of emotion too plentiful, the dictates of Franklin Roosevelt too capricious for there to have been even a momentary sense of events moving as if on a track. Things could have gone differently at any of several points, and with the most far-reaching consequences. The common, realistic, and not unspoken view was that they were there to pick not one but two Presidents, and if the identity of the first was clear, that of the second was not. It was politics for the highest stakes, politics at its slipperiest, and the only real drama of either national convention that summer.
Looking back on what happened, Alben Barkley would conclude that he had been sadly naive about the whole business. He had been in politics nearly forty years, this was his eleventh national convention, but he had never seen anything like what went on.
Truman drove to Chicago from Kansas City on Saturday, July 15, four days before the convention was officially to open and the same day the President’s westbound train made an unscheduled stop at Chicago.
Roosevelt was en route to San Diego, where a cruiser would take him to Hawaii for meetings with Gen. Douglas MacArthur. But at three that afternoon his train was shunted onto a siding so that Bob Hannegan could come aboard for a private talk in the President’s new armor-plated private railroad car, the Ferdinand Magellan . They were together approximately half an hour. Though nearly everything said between Roosevelt and Hannegan was kept secret, one request by Roosevelt would become the best-known line of the convention. Whatever was decided, said the President, Hannegan must first “clear it with Sidney,” meaning that Sidney Hillman was to have the final say—Hillman, who now ran the CIO’s well-heeled Political Action Committee, or PAC, which was something new in American politics.
Hannegan also came off the train with a letter on White House stationery, which, in lieu of a briefcase, he carried inside a copy of National Geographic magazine. It was postdated July 19:
You have written me about Harry Truman and Bill Douglas. I should, of course, be very glad to run with either of them and believe that either one of them would bring real strength to the ticket.
Always sincerely, Franklin Roosevelt
Whether it had been written earlier in Washington or was produced to order that day is not certain. Ed Pauley, who claimed to have been with Hannegan when he went to see Roosevelt, said later that Hannegan was back at his hotel before he discovered to his horror that Douglas was even mentioned.
The handsome, gregarious Hannegan—Mr. Busyman Bob, as he would be remembered—was playing an extremely deceitful game at this, his first national convention, possibly at Roosevelt’s direction, and possibly not. For his next move was to call Jimmy Byrnes in Washington and tell him that the Vice Presidency was all set. Byrnes was the one.
Byrnes left Washington at once. Arriving in Chicago on the morning of Sunday, the sixteenth, he found a bright red fire chief’s car and driver waiting at the station for him, courtesy of Mayor Kelly. He was taken directly to the mayor’s apartment on Lake Shore Drive for a breakfast meeting with Kelly and Hannegan, who assured him he was the chosen man. “Well, you know Jimmy has been my choice from the very first. Go ahead and nominate him,” they quoted Roosevelt as having instructed.