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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
T he common and realistic view was that they were there to pick not one but two Presidents.
The company spent most of the day with Byrnes mapping out strategy; Hannegan even ordered “Roosevelt and Byrnes” placards printed. By late afternoon the word had spread among the delegates and reporters milling about in the hotel lobbies.
The Roosevelt letter to Hannegan was kept secret. Hannegan was showing it to no one, and no one apparently had said anything about it as yet to Senator Truman, who by now had his nominating speech for Byrnes all prepared.
Sitting beside an open window in his hotel room that evening, the flat gray-blue panorama of Lake Michigan in the distance, Truman talked at length to a St. Louis reporter, with the understanding that most of what he said was off the record. Although Bess and Margaret, due to arrive on Thursday, would be staying at the Morrison Hotel, the senator had taken a suite in the Stevens, across the street from the venerable Blackstone, so that his “politicking” would not disturb their sleep. Jimmy Byrnes, his candidate, was also in the Stevens, six flights up on the twentythird floor, in the hotel’s plush Royal Skyway, the same rooms occupied a few weeks earlier by Thomas E. Dewey.
He was determined to stay out of the running, Truman said. The reporter remarked that as Vice President he might “succeed to the throne.” Truman shook his head. “Hell, I don’t want to be President.” Then, with what the reporter described as the sharp memory of a professional historian, the senator described the failures and scorn experienced by every Vice President who had succeeded to the highest office, beginning with John Tyler and apparently overlooking the most obvious example to the contrary, Theodore Roosevelt.
Truman’s Kansas City friend Tom Evans, an old Pendergast loyalist who had grown rich with a chain of drugstores that also sold quantities of Pendergast beer and whiskey, had come to Chicago at Truman’s request for the supposed purpose of helping him fend off the nomination, as had Eddie McKim and John Snyder. Scowling, heavy-handed Fred Canfil, too, was on hand in his role as general factotum and looking, noted one reporter, “as if he could throw a bull in two falls out of three.” (Canfil would later complain of missing much of the drama on the convention floor because “somebody else wanted some booze and I had to help him.”) Yet they all seem to have spent most of their time talking Truman up as the ideal choice—McKim liked to say it was a question of destiny—and trying to persuade Truman to change his mind.
As McKim remembered, they “got Truman in a room and…explained the situation to him.” After much talk McKim told him, “I think, Senator, that you’re going to do it.” What gave him that idea? Truman snapped. “Because,” said McKim, “there’s a little, old ninety-year-old mother down in Grandview, Missouri, that would like to see her son President of the United States.” Truman, in tears, stomped out of the room.
Reflecting on Truman’s frame of mind years later, John Snyder would say that it wasn’t so much that Truman didn’t want to be President as that he didn’t want to succeed Franklin Roosevelt, which was different.
For Truman, in memory, the convention would always be “that miserable time” in Chicago, the most exasperating experience of his life. Marquis Childs, a practiced Truman observer, described him as plainly “scared to death.”
The sensation of Monday, July 17, was the release by the convention chairman, Samuel Jackson, of Roosevelt’s letter about Wallace. A hundred reporters or more fought for the mimeographed copies. It had been written at Hyde Park on Friday, the same day of Roosevelt’s reassuring telephone conversation with Jimmy Byrnes: “I have been associated with Henry Wallace during his past four years as Vice President [so read the key paragraph of the instantly famous document], for eight years earlier while he was Secretary of Agriculture, and well before that. I like him and I respect him and he is my personal friend. For these reasons I personally would vote for his nomination if I were a delegate to the convention.”
To many it seemed a kiss of death for Wallace—“the coolest and cruelest brush-off in all the long Roosevelt career,” in the words of one account. Unquestionably it threw the choice of a running mate wide open. He did not “wish to appear to be in any way dictating to the convention,” Roosevelt had also written. If anybody benefited, said several papers, it was Jimmy Byrnes.
Now, in response, Hannegan began by saying he, too, had a letter from the President that named Truman. But no one was allowed to see it.
Hannegan ‘s corner suite on the seventh floor of the Blackstone, rooms 708–709, had become the convention nerve center, since Hannegan alone claimed direct telephone contact with the President. In the red-carpeted hall outside, reporters and photographers set up a round-the-clock vigil to see who came and went. Mayor Kelly, who was in and out “continually,” kept mentioning the Roosevelt letter. But at a dinner that night arranged by Kelly in a private apartment on Chicago’s North Side, a location kept secret from the press, Byrnes was the man of the hour. It was only when everybody was about to leave that Hannegan casually mentioned one further detail, the need, as required by the President, to “clear it with Sidney.”